Promoting teaching focussed academics

I read with interest this series of blog posts on promotion in academia, discussing external promotions (having to move beyond your institution to get promoted), internal promotions, and using the former to achieve the latter.

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There is an additional layer of considerations for promotion of teaching focussed academics working in disciplinary departments (as opposed to education departments). The first is whether teaching focussed academics should be promoted on the basis of their work in teaching. The argument against is that if research is the traditional metric, then one who does not do research should not be promoted, and certainly not to professorial rank. This is still a prevalent view, although one that is changing somewhat. In the UK, there are not many Professors of Chemistry Education for example; I can think of a handful. In the last year there has been quite a few examples of people being promoted to Associate Professor (Reader) level. But it is still early days.

One of the difficulties is even if an institution wishes to promote someone to senior level, what criteria do they use? Typical criteria of funding and to a certain extent publication record are more difficult to apply. A general finger in the wind idea is whether the candidate has an international reputation, which seems sensible enough, but then I might say that. In a world of professional social media, a reputation and a reputation online are becoming confused. So instead, institutions might look for candidates to be Senior or Principal Fellow of the HEA, as an externally judged metric of reputation. This requires quite a commitment on the part of the applicant, and reflects back on what is the promotable action – teaching quality itself, or impact of that on others within and beyond the institution. For professorship, my own institution seeks things like external awards, student nominated awards, contribution to university policy, development of a MOOC (what?!), authorship of influential textbook, author of publications, invites to major conferences, or PFHEA. Perhaps I am blinkered, but one feels that if this level of criteria was equivalent across the board for all promotions, we would have very few professors generally.

One of the ironies of teaching focussed promotions is that it somewhat focusses on shiny new things that appear above the baseline of just doing the regular teaching grind. Things have to be excellent and innovative and while in a way that is good to encourage creativity, I do fear a little for students who are exposed to some crazier ideas so that the (ir)responsible academic can write about their snap-bang-whizz in appropriate promotion documentation.

A second concern is that publish-and-be-damned is even more enticing for education focussed academics looking for evidence. Promotion panels are unlikely to know the difference between reputable education publications with some merit in the field and The Secret Diary of Chemistry Education, promising all the latest news in the field. An education publication is an education publication, and to a passing eye, might appear so. One would hope that at least in this instance, an external reviewer might comment on that.

Finally, there is the issue of external reviewers. If someone is going for promotion on the basis of their teaching, and internally the university finds it difficult to judge quality, how can an external person do so? It will come back to perception, and perceptions are going to be influenced by bias. Over the last few years, I have been asked to write review letters for a whole variety of teaching focussed academic promotions from junior to professorial levels. One thing is very common – the difficulty in moving beyond perception and basing references on something tangible – there is often a lack of tangible evidence, often for the reasons above. So while the horizon isn’t clear and the pathway isn’t quite mapped out yet, recording and documenting evidence will be useful to support applications when the clouds clear. I’m open to suggestions as to what that might entail…

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