In my recent post on what the hell I'm going to do with myself now, I articulated probably for the first time the gap between what I enjoy - research/writing - and what I value - teaching - and noted that for someone who wants to write, I haven't done very much of it. And then I was reading a recent post by the Bittersweet Girl, in which she notes, "For essentially my entire academic career, teaching has taken a second place to research/writing/publishing."
I had one of those kind of wow, people sure are different! experiences reading that: teaching has taken a second place to research/writing/publishing. Really? Gosh. How does that work?
This not remotely intended to criticize Bittersweet Girl. Her explanation makes perfect sense:
Originally this was due to my immaturity, back in the days when I idolized my famous professors and dreamt of joining their ranks as an international celebrity academic. They seemed to treat teaching as a minor distraction to the truly important work of their minds, and I followed their lead.
More recently, my focus on R/W/P has been driven by necessity and abject fear. Tenure hangs over my head like a knife and, despite some pretty words about the importance of teaching, everyone knows that tenure at MidState U. is determined by one’s publishing record.
She describes the priorities of academia, especially in graduate education, perfectly. Of course research is more important than teaching. Of course research is what gets you jobs, tenure, promotions.
But it was just funny to read her statement because I, and I think many of my colleagues throughout my academic career, have always struggled with the opposite - research takes second place to teaching.
I came to grad school from a small liberal arts college in which we students were the precious special flowers to whose nurture the institution was dedicated, and when I idolized my professors, it was as teachers, because that was how I knew them - I had very little sense of their research activities. So that probably predisposed me to put teaching ahead of research.
When I got to grad school, I and virtually all the other students were funded through teaching assistantships - there were fellowships floating around, but usually for no more than a term or a year at a time. Hence, almost everyone taught. And since teaching so much probably slowed our progress, the more we taught, the longer we took, which meant the more we taught. I'm glad to have had that experience (hell, I'm glad to have had the funding!), but I know that right from the very beginning, it was difficult sometimes to make research our absolute top priority.
After all, things like Ph.D. exams or prospectus defenses only happened (ideally) once, and could even be rescheduled if necessary, but we had to get up and confront a room full of students at a set time, usually four times a week. We were all teaching courses for the first time - and sure, the professor chose the material, wrote the syllabus, and delivered the lectures, but there's still a lot to prep when you're going to spend an hour+ at a time talking to students about that stuff, at least, when you've never done it before and in fact may never have studied the subject in question before. Teaching for the first time is stressful and takes a lot of energy. And when you're grading for someone else, you get that grading done on their schedule, not your own.
Moreover, my grad program, while big (HUGE!) and research-y, actually did a pretty decent job in training us to be teachers. This was probably as much because grad students taught so many students that it was easier to give them some training and help them be competent than to deal with dissatisfied or woefully prepared students, as because of any philosophical inclination, but the result was a cohort of grad students who largely took teaching seriously and tried to do it well. We all taught a lot, and we all talked about it a lot. In fact, among ourselves we probably talked more explicitly about how to teach than how to do research (we discussed research a lot, too, but as a department, we discussed research results, not so much the research process).
This wasn't necessarily because we valued teaching over research, mind you, but just because failures in teaching seemed to have much more immediate consequences than failures in research! Getting your advisor's criticism on a chapter draft could suck, but it was a very different kind of suckage than finding yourself in the middle of a classroom in revolt or coping with a storm of grade challenges, or even watching the seconds tick by agonizingly slowly on a day when no one in class - NO ONE - was willing to say anything.
We were also all very well aware (because the dept told us) that we were not at an Ivy League school, and that since there were far more teaching schools than elite research institutions out there, we'd better be able to teach/talk intelligently about teaching, in order to get a job. So we put a fair amount of energy into the teaching sphere.
(I could even wax all psychological and postulate that an identification with teaching is a pretty natural response to being in grad school - that in a context where you're a student, and thus not a full, independent adult, for so long, and where it often feels like one person - your advisor - holds your very future in their hands - it's not surprising that one's sense of self becomes invested in the one arena in which you actually are an authority figure and over which you do actually have some control. But that would be wild speculation.)
So the point is, my graduate program emphasized teaching in a lot of ways, and I remember it being very early in graduate school when my colleagues and I started commenting to each other on the all-encompassing nature of teaching, and how it was so easy to put everything else aside in favor of teaching prep, because other people depended on our preparation for teaching, whereas the research only mattered to ourselves.
And this certainly didn't change when I started working full-time. The people who hired me as a full-time adjunct didn't care particularly about my research; the ~120 students I taught each semester that year certainly didn't. My two tenure-track positions were both in teaching institutions, and while both had research expectations (though Former College's were much higher than Rural Utopia's), again the constant refrain from faculty was how teaching took up all of one's time, was the thing that couldn't be pushed aside, and how the difficulty was to make time for the research. Because after all, teaching was why we were there.
Now, none of these things are actually incompatible with what the Bittersweet Girl said. It depends on how you define "take second place." What's most important to you - what you prioritize, what you value - does not have to be what takes up most of your day. There can be a difference between practice - the amount of daily grind spent on teaching - and priority - the importance placed on it.
But it was still just interesting to see, in black and white, the idea that teaching takes second place to research, and to realize that I'd probably never have articulated my work life in that way. Research has always taken second place to teaching, because teaching is about other people, and research is just about me. (Don't think that means I'm suggesting I'm some altruistic saint and people who prioritize research are selfish bastards; that's not at all what I mean. It's just easier for me to be accountable to others than it is to be accountable to myself. It's why I'm much better at writing conference papers than articles - if I commit to standing up in front of a group of strangers, damn straight I'm going to write something. If it's just me sitting in my office - eh. I find the short-term consequences of not working on my teaching much more painful than the short-term consequences of not working on my research, and as for the long-term consequences of the latter - well, I'm not very good at thinking in the long term.) What I do, what I spend my time on, becomes what I prioritize, even if it's not actually what I value more.
All this makes me wonder how things might have been different if I had gone to grad school where activities matched priorities - where grad students didn't teach, or at least, not nearly as much. I'm not saying that my grad experience is the only reason I've ended up with this mentality, but I think it's one reason. In any case, Bittersweet Girl's post helped me figure out some more reasons why I haven't actually put my money where my mouth is.