Sunday, July 24, 2011

A Tale of Two Valuations: Academia Next

I initially thought this post would be a piece of cake compared to the previous post about the corporate perspective. Not so. Perhaps because of my extensive academic experience I am far more aware of the variance of how professionals are valued in the world of higher education. So I have been looking for points of common ground within academia...I am almost afraid someone will throw a rotten tomato at me because I know too much (I've been reading a murder mystery, where the person who knows too much often comes to a messy end).

To state the obvious (to academics at least) there are the three classic areas of valuation for faculty: Teaching, Research and Service. Service (pretty much anything not teaching or research related such as committee work, performing outreach or being a student adviser) can safely be said to come last in the pile. Do no committee work and you will get dinged; do too much and you will get dinged (I know someone who was denied tenure because he was told he performed too much service work). So the trick is to find the middle ground according to the culture of your department and institution.

From there is gets murkier.

Teaching: In some institutions this is virtually all that counts. But how it is measured varies widely. In some cases, it is all about teaching evaluations. Period. Get those numbers up and get them high or else. The pressure can be intense, and in extreme examples there can be a completely predictable desperation to "please" students above all else. In my experience, this is not the norm, and is incredibly destructive to the learning process. More often, in a teaching oriented institution, evaluations are important, but only one indicator of how a faculty is evaluated. More sophisticated methods of assessing effective learning are used.  And by effective I'm not talking statistical evaluation; I'm talking qualitative evaluations. That is healthy imo. Institutions with a well rounded process for evaluating teaching can produce amazing students who go on to do amazing things inside and outside the classroom and after graduation. And the faculty feels professionally successful and appreciated.

Research: In some institutions this is virtually all that counts. Again, the worst case scenario is where not only are publications counted (literally) but the venues for publication are ranked. If you don't get into "the top" pubs, forget it. You are toast. Even within computing, there are disagreements as to what counts as a quality publication venue. Then there are grants. Worst case scenario, you need a fixed number of grants and big dollars - millions would be nice. Not healthy, as there is only so much money to go around and that sets up a system of guaranteed winners and losers regardless of quality. Very much like using a normalization curve in grading. Something I never used and never will because it has all sorts of negative side effects that many educators are well enough aware of that I won't repeat them here.

Quite a bit of gloom up in those paragraphs. Now to inject a positive perspective. BALANCE. It is all about balance. The original idea behind Teaching, Research and Service was to promote balance. Some of all three are needed from every faculty. Many institutions, although they do by design weight teaching and research differently, maintain a healthy balance. What are the factors that indicate successful teaching in such situations? Each professional is evaluated in the context of both institutional need and known pedagogical / cognitive learning understandings. Other factors come into play to varying degrees depending upon the context: local needs, student needs, etc. What are the factors that indicate successful research? Very similar actually. The institutional needs and established understandings of rigor in scientific research lead to an evaluation of individual contributions (reminder here that we are talking computing and related areas. I can't speak to areas such as the arts and humanities). Grants in these institutions aren't just about how much money is brought in, but about the effect the work is likely to have on science, or in the case of educational research such as computer science education research on the discovery and dissemination of improved teaching and learning theory and application.

It feels like I've short circuited my comments, but that comes from knowing too much.

A summation might be: for faculty in academia professional valuation is based on teaching, research and service, and in a healthy environment there is a contextually appropriate and healthy balance. Value is not just numbers, nor is it vague and undefinable.

I feel like I'm stating the obvious, but that is only the case if you are an academic reading this. Based upon some of the comments I received to my last post about valuation in the corporate world, there are many to whom this post will be news.

One of my next tasks will be to see where I can locate opportunities for common ground.

But first, I'll ask you to graciously do what you did before, and provide your perspective on:

1) What can you add about how academics in higher education are judged to provide value to their organizations?  What can you add that is concrete - i.e. can be said in very concise form?

2) Where do you see common ground between between corporate and academic valuation of professional contribution to their organizations? 

(I think we have all heard about the areas where there is supposedly no common ground. Let's look for the positive now).

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