|Kelly Jabbusch, a University of Washington math graduate student on Friday, Sept. 15, 2006 in Seattle. Jabbusch likes teaching and has served as lead taching assistant for math department. Washington, Ohio State, Temple and Delaware are among schools taking teacher-training missions more seriously. (AP Photo/Jim Bryant)|
Some colleges shifting focus to teaching
SEATTLE --Kelly Jabbusch likes teaching, and she's good at it. She knows not to talk too much, and how to see a problem through the eyes of a novice. She has received an award from the University of Washington, and served as lead teaching assistant for the math department.
"I find great joy in teaching," Jabbusch said. "I would hope employers ask about it."
Often in the academic world, they don't -- though that may be changing.
Universities are supposed to produce the next generation of college professors -- that is, people who will both conduct research and teach. But star researchers bring in money and prestige. It is an open secret that, for many top academic jobs, research potential is the first thing hiring committees look for.
"At research institutions, that's what the currency is," said Jim Masterson, president of the National Association of Graduate-Professional Students.
Now, however, some universities are taking their teacher-training missions more seriously. Partly, it's to provide better teaching for their own undergraduates, who with rising tuition are less hesitant to complain about incompetent TAs. And partly it's to help their graduate students when they go into a job market that seems moderately more interested in teaching skills than in the past.
Several universities, including Washington, Colorado and Michigan, have built up significant centers staffed with experts to train and mentor teaching assistants.
Washington, Ohio State, Temple and Delaware are among the schools organizing major training conferences for new TAs each year, while Howard University is leading an effort to improve classroom preparation for future faculty members at historically black colleges. Membership in the POD (Professional and Organizational Development) Network, a group of university employees who work on developing teaching skills, has grown from 100 in 1974 to about 1,500.
"Major research universities really did lose their publics because of lack of attention to undergraduate education for a while," said Jody Nyquist, a former Washington administrator who oversaw a major national research project called Preparing Future Faculty.
Community colleges have long focused on teaching, but Nyquist said graduate students now are reporting more questions about teaching in job interviews from four-year schools. Laura Border, who oversees a graduate teaching program at Colorado, said two recent graduates there were offered higher base salaries for faculty jobs because they had specialized classroom training.
Still, change is slow. As Donald Wulff, who heads up Washington's Center for Instructional Development and Research, put it: "To get tenure you have to be a great researcher and I think a medium-quality teacher." In the past, he said, being a great researcher and a poor teacher sufficed.
One challenge is that current faculty members were hired largely to do research, so that's the mold in which they build the next generation. "We're cloning ourselves," Wulff said.
Some factors that have boosted the emphasis on teaching have also detracted from it at the same time. Rising costs have focused more attention on teaching quality, but have also deprived some graduate students of opportunities to get in the classroom. Pricey private universities "have told graduate students they cannot afford to have Ph.Ds come and practice on their students," Nyquist said.
The scarcity of academic jobs has prompted universities like Washington to acknowledge many graduates will end up primarily teaching, in community colleges, and train them accordingly. But the scarcity also puts more pressure on graduate students to "publish or perish," and focus on research.
Also, universities face pressure to shorten the time it takes graduate students to finish their degrees. Teacher training and TA jobs lengthen that path.
Another obstacle is that individual departments have final say over how graduate students are trained, so teaching centers like that at Washington inevitably play only a supporting role.
A survey of 4,000 doctoral students at 27 universities released in 2001 found only about half of the graduate programs require students to serve as teaching assistants. But opportunities vary widely between fields. For instance, more than three-quarters of English graduate students had access to a term-long TA training course, but barely one-quarter in chemistry and molecular biology.
"I was sort of tapped on the shoulder and asked, `Do you want to teach a statistics class?'" said Masterson, the graduate student association president and a University of Cincinnati doctoral candidate. "The philosophy is, if you have a master's in the subject, you know it well enough to teach it."
But he warned: "How do you handle a racial comment that targets another student? How do you manage classroom tension? You don't get that."
Those topics and others-- are on the agenda at a conference starting Monday at Washington that will be attended by hundreds of new TAs. After it is over, TAs will have continued access to training courses, mentoring and confidential advice.
Kim Lucy, a graduate student in art history, said she had a sense from her own undergraduate days at Washington what makes a good TA, but attending a training conference helped.
"It's always scary standing up in front of 50 people for the first time, but I felt pretty comfortable," she said. Still, Lucy isn't sure she will go on to pursue a doctorate. She isn't convinced there's a place for someone like her who just wants to teach.
"It's unfortunate to know you have to go through all that other stuff to get to do something you love," she said.
On the Net:
University of Washington training: http://depts.washington.edu/cidrweb/