Faculty Research and Student Success: A Tough Mix

The American Federation of Teachers has just issued a report that outlines the institutional conditions of “student success,” including the role of the faculty.  (The report itself is here.) 

Much of the document is predictable.  The criticism of reigning assessments of student learning and graduation rehearse familiar arguments about “one-size-fits-all” and “not-all-learning-is-measurable” and “insufficient-funding-for-authentic-assessment.”  And, of course, the document insists on putting teachers at the center of design and planning processes, with lots of government support.
But we shouldn’t be overly cynical about the intentions of AFT in wading into large-scale policy matters.  We need more teachers involved in the national discussion of assessment, curriculum, and retention.  Furthermore, AFT recognizes in the document that outsiders are crucial, too, even business people:
“Regular opportunities should be taken to obtain the views of stakeholders such as students and business representatives, disciplinary associations, civic leaders and other community organizations about the efficacy of the educational program although, in the final analysis, education decisions should be driven by educators.”
But there is a complicating factor to faculty involvement in student success that the document overlooks entirely.  AFT envisions teachers
• “Being available and providing proactive help to students in puzzling out the requirements of the academic program and the course subject matter”
• “Advising students on their career goals”
• “Offering early and continual feedback and formative and summative assessment of student progress” 
• “Participating actively in institution-wide reviews of progress in carrying out a student success agenda”
• “Supporting individual faculty members in attaining professional development, improving their pedagogy and technological skills, and strengthening other aspects of the faculty skill set.”
Something is missing: research/scholarship.  (The entire document mentions “research” and “scholarship” twice each time, none of them substantive mentions.)  In highlighting faculty responsibilities for student success, AFT overlooks the primary working condition of teachers employed by research universities: publish or perish.  If faculty members don’t produce (whether by bringing in research dollars or churning out publications), they don’t get promoted, garner nice annual raises, or impress colleagues anywhere else.
On that model, too much time with students amounts to career endangerment.  The “feedback” and “proactive help” and “advising” AFT announces must strike an assistant professor as altogether unrealistic.  “Are you kidding?” they ask.  If they don’t get that book manuscript accepted, they may be out of the profession forever.  If the grants don’t come through, their salary suffers.  Every hour spent talking with an 18-year-old about career plans is an hour lost, not gained.  
This is to say that all the incentives at research institutions work in the opposite direction of the AFT faculty-involvement model.  For non-research institutions, the model is worth following, but for research institutions, unless the incentives change, the heightened participation of professors won’t happen.

Mark Bauerlein

Mark Bauerlein is a professor emeritus of English at Emory University and an editor at First Things, where he hosts a podcast twice a week. He is the author of five books, including The Dumbest Generation Grows Up: From Stupefied Youth to Dangerous Adults.

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