Blog: Turning teaching-track promotions upside down

Marnie Hughes-Warrington on the case for re-thinking academic career progression

January 19, 2015

I can’t help wondering what it would be like if we tipped the way that we think about academic promotions upside down. In particular, if we judged candidates’ proficiency in research in the way that we currently judge their ability as teachers, and the other way round.

Imagine a promotions process in which the appointment committee decide they cannot judge how good a candidate is because they haven’t seen them research. In this scenario the panel decides that what is needed is peer observation of the researcher at work. It judges the charisma and enthusiasm of the researcher as he or she sits for hours reading, writing, analysing or programming.

It’s difficult to predict how this approach might change the way research is carried out. It might revolutionise the lab, turn time at the bench into a hugely entertaining spectacle. Or it might change the way we view the more mundane aspects of research, forcing us to recognise the value in the long hours spent by researchers fixing or refining their apparatus and approach. We might apply such prestige to these formerly overlooked activities that we would find ourselvs moved to share them with the world in the form of a Massive Open Online Research project.

Continuing down this road, the next step might be to conclude that it is not appropriate to seek peer review from around the world – we should instead judge research within its local context and consider metrics such as the number of people the author spoke to before they published.

Now consider the other side of the coin: teaching. Picture a promotions process in which international referees are called upon to judge the merits of a lecturer, with particular attention paid to evidence of the “impact” of their work. Imagine if that impact is required to be national or international or even “world leading”.

Are you laughing nervously yet? I am, because this flight of fancy exposes a fundamental asymmetry in the way we think about academic promotions. Teaching and learning is seen as local and judged primarily on inputs; research is seen as national and international and judged on the impact of outputs.

It is easy to bridle at the common refrain that universities do not value education. Despite evidence that the range of academic roles is growing and that universities are adopting “teaching track” promotion criteria, not to mention the very competitive grant schemes here in Australia focused explicitly on education, outstanding teachers are still discussed as also-rans in the context of higher education: revenue drones for the tuition-fee income they pull in, but nobodies to those who worship at the altar of research excellence.

Numerous studies, including by the Higher Education Academy in the UK, have identified promotion policies and criteria as the most significant factor in ensuring that teaching and learning is recognised and rewarded within our universities. This gives us clear guidance about what we need to do if we want perceptions of teaching as a ‘second-class’ academic activity to change. But my question is whether real change will come about only if we move away from the idea of teaching as a purely “local” activity, and expand the evidence base and expectations of teaching-track academics when we consider them for advancement.

For me, the way we think about education in promotions processes needs to change in kind, not just in degree, and I feel we are only just beginning to take this step.

This year at the Australian National University we have accredited over 130 Higher Education Academy Fellows on the basis of impact portfolios that address international standards, and on the strength of international and national referees. But we are just one institution, and we are going to have to accelerate our efforts to provide academics with the external standards and frameworks for presenting evidence of impact (not to mention access to a suitable network of national and international referees) if we are genuinely to turn the academic world upside down. Our goal should be to insist that teachers and educators be judged by the same standards as research.

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