Briefly Noted: On Tenure and Teaching

I’m sure nobody saw this one coming. In a recent edition of The Chronicle, Dan Berrett reports on the findings of a recent study at Northwestern University and concludes that tenured professors at this top tier university were consistently rated lower than non-tenure track professors. “Students learned more,” writes Dan Berrett, “when their first instructor in a discipline was not on the tenure track, as compared with those whose introductory professor was tenured, according to a new paper from researchers at Northwestern University.”

In the article, “For Teaching, Tenure Isn’t Better” Berrett reports on a paper entitled, ““Are Tenure-Track Professors Better Teachers?” co-authored by David N. Figlio (director of Northwestern’s Institute for Policy Research), Morton O. Smith (President of Northwestern), and Kevin B. Soter.”[1] The authors answer in the negative. “The students,” they write, “were more likely to take a second course in a discipline if the first had been taught by an untenured faculty member, and they were more likely to earn a better grade in the next course compared with students whose first course in the discipline had been taught by a tenured or tenure-track professor.” After checking and double-checking, the authors report the consistent result that undergraduate students at Northwestern learned better under part-time instructors than tenured or tenure-track professors.

The study was only conducted at Northwestern, which limits its impact and applicability. As Berrett notes, “The fact that the study was conducted only on students at Northwestern makes it both useful and limited for its broader application.” The Northwestern student body is certainly above the national averages for academic performance: “ . . . students who were described in the study as less-qualified academically . . . still posted an average SAT score of 1316.” Further, non-tenured instructors at Northwestern likely do not resemble other part-time instructors; Northwestern pays quite handsomely, giving part-time faculty members anywhere from $4,200 to $7,334 per course.

I’ll limit my response to one brief reflection. As I read the article, I kept imagining the part-time and non-tenured professors at Northwestern who are no doubt “lean and hungry,” who are forced to be good teachers in order to keep their jobs. They have not yet been given cushy and almost-untouchable tenured positions at Northwestern (or at any other state or private university). Like anybody else in working America, their paycheck depends upon their ability to do their task in a way that contributes to the community.

By way of contrast, tenured professors might lock into a six-figure salary for four decades while never progressing, and perhaps even regressing, in their classroom instruction or student interactions. There are various reasons that a professor might perform poorly and without improvement over the course of their tenure. On the one hand, the fault might lie partly with an administration that does not encourage faculty members to improve as instructors, or does not equip them with the resources to catalyze improvement. On the other hand, the faculty member might be undisciplined, lazy, or apathetic. Or he might value his research projects to such an extent that he allows those projects to take clear priority over his students.

Whatever the reason, it is a crime against students and against the profession to take one’s teaching duties lightly.

Thomas Cronin put it nicely, in his 1992 article, “On Celebrating College Teaching”:

Great teachers give us a sense not only of who they are, but more important, of who we are, and who we might become. They unlock our energies, our imaginations, and our minds. Effective teachers pose compelling questions, explain options, teach us to reason, suggest possible directions, and urge us on. The best teachers, like the best leaders, have an uncanny ability to step outside themselves and become liberating forces in our lives.

Likewise George Steiner who, in Lessons of the Masters, writes:

To teach seriously is to lay hands on what is most vital in a human being. . . . Poor teaching, pedagogic routine, a style of instruction which is, unconsciously or not, cynical in its mere utilitarian aims, are ruinous. They tear up hope by its roots. Bad teaching is, almost literally, murderous and metaphorically, a sin. It diminishes the student, it reduces to gray inanity the subject being presented.

As seminary professors, may we never reduce to gray inanity the breathtaking splendor of our ultimate Subject—the Triune God and the world he created. May our efforts be pleasing to him, and may we teach in a manner worthy of our calling.


[1] Dan Berrett, “For Teaching, Tenure Isn’t Better” in The Chronicle of Higher Education (Sep. 20, 2013): A13.

On Higher Education and Intellectual Virtue

In a recent edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education (Oct 12, 2012), Dan Berrett argues that many colleges are giving short shrift to the importance of intellectual virtue. In his article, “Habits of the Mind: Lessons for the Long Term,” Berrett encourages professors to go beyond content-driven and skills-driven pedagogy in order to foster underlying intellectual traits such as curiosity, open-mindedness, intellectual courage, thoroughness, and humility.  “Shape your students’ underlying attitudes and intellectual characteristics, the theory goes, and a lifetime of deep and lasting learning will follow.”

Berrett’s article reflects a growing interest in intellectual virtue. In the field of primary education, Paul Tough’s recent bestseller, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, argues that children who are trained in intellectual virtue will benefit from it over the course of a lifetime. In the field of higher education, a Rutgers University conference will focus on developing a model for applying intellectual virtues to education. In the philosophical discipline of epistemology, the last two decades have seen numerous books and articles published on the subject of intellectual virtue (e.g. W. Jay Wood, Epistemology: Becoming Intellectually Virtuous).

Berrett provides examples of how certain professors foster such virtues in the classroom setting. Heather Battaly, a philosophy professor at California State University, uses her “Introduction to Logic” course to do so. She requires her students to keep a journal in which they track their intellectual acts outside of the classroom. If they watch a TV show or listen to a song, they record the ways in which they respond intellectually. If they have a dispute with a friend, they record how they resolve the dispute. Jason Baehr, a professor at Loyola Marymount, takes a similar approach and argues that, “One of the really nice things about teaching for intellectual virtue is that, because they aim for deep, explanatory understanding and not just memorization of isolated facts, you’re automatically teaching for rigor.”

We agree with Berrett on this point. The resurgence of interest in “intellectual virtue” is a welcome development which helps to mitigate reductionist models of pedagogy which limit education to something such as content transfer, skill-set development, or quantitative analysis. This development is a recognition, in the secular realm, of what the biblical writers and Christian theologians have argued for thousands of years: every square inch of the fabric of human life is affected by a great antithesis, a massive battle between good and evil, virtue and vice, wisdom and folly. The human mind is not exempt from this battle, but is deeply affected by it, as it is tempted toward intellectual laziness, dishonesty, impatience, close-mindedness, arrogance, boredom, and superficiality. The Christian life demands more than quiet times and church attendance: it demands that we also bring our thought life and intellectual habits under the Lordship of he who gave us those capacities.