The Bug Geek

Insects. Doing Science. Other awesome, geeky stuff.

Does teaching matter?

Some of you may recall that I have been the teaching assistant for an introductory zoology lab for the past few years. When the powers that be restructured the lab in a major way last year (cut the number of lab sessions in half), I took the initiative to make some pretty significant changes in terms of the material being taught and how it was presented. I am tweaking things even more this term, based on feedback from last year’s students and on some new pedagogical approaches I’ve learned.

Since the current labs are definitely better but not best, and would really benefit from a thoughtful and thorough revision and updating, I got this idea that I would approach the chair of our department and offer my (paid) services to do the work, perhaps over the summer since my field component won’t be so heavy this year. Not knowing whether this would be red-tape-or-pecking-order-ly acceptable, I went and spoke to my advisor and told him my idea.

I mostly expected him to say: “It’s not really appropriate for a student to take on that kind of role,” and I would have accepted that. If that didn’t happen, the alternative I’d imagined was something like, “Cool. This would be a great course development/teaching experience. Approach the chair and check it out, but make sure you’re still getting your research/publications done in a timely way,” which I would have perceived as both awesome and perfectly reasonable.

But what I heard, and what surprised me, was this: “No one reading your CV is going to care about something like that. It’s not a good use of your time. Write and publish papers. That’s really all that matters.***”

I’m well aware of the importance of publications as the “currency” of academia, and their role as indicators of one’s research activities. I get it. I have a half-dozen manuscripts lined up (in my head, anyways), and want to get them all at least in press/under review before I have to start worrying about securing post-doc funding.


I also thought that being an academic had something to do with teaching. Like, that maybe 1/3 of your time would be devoted to preparing, delivering, and developing instructive materials for students (the other 2/3 to research and administrative duties). And, in my happy little bubble of wonderfulness that is the way I imagine academia to be, I thought that GOOD teaching would be valued by the university that hired me.ย  My line of reasoning therefore was this: demonstrate solid teaching experience on your CV and this would be considered an important and good thing during the hiring process – all other things being equal (publications, awards, etc.), a strong teaching portfolio could move your CV to the top of the pile.

Apparently I was wrong: it doesn’t matter.

Am I THAT off base? Is it only in my dreams and imagination that there are universities/colleges that place equal (or at least close to equal) emphasis on strong research abilities AND strong teaching abilities? Surely such places exist?

Teaching is important to me; it is something I enjoy and take pride in being good at. I take seminars or workshops when they’re available; I read things; I observe good instructors/lecturers when I can find them and do my best to pick up some of their good habits; I ask questions of those I respect; I ask my students what they want and what works for them.ย  I honestly believed that these efforts would not just be personally rewarding (which they are), but that there would also be a professional payoff.

Someone, please tell me it matters.


***This same person happens to be someone who is on my list of “really good teachers”


Edited to add:

Relevant blog posts from elsewhere, just to add to the discussion:

Female Science Professor

Crooked Timber

32 responses to “Does teaching matter?

  1. Alex Webb January 30, 2012 at 11:26 AM

    Oh, it matters. Sometimes the most important things you’ll say and do won’t belong on a resume. I have heard too many professional scientists tell their story about an undergraduate lecture or lab that changed their life’s direction. That’s not something you’ll find on their CV’s, but it’s arguably the most important moment in their professional careers.

    • TGIQ January 31, 2012 at 7:58 AM

      I know that my own career direction was changed drastically thanks to the particularly excellent teaching style of one of my undergrad profs (who, incidentally, does not have a graduate degree), so I completely agree with this.

  2. Chris Buddle January 30, 2012 at 11:27 AM

    Great blog post -a valuable topic, and a great question. Yes, teaching matters, but I think the degree to which it matters depends very much on the career path of interest. If you are keen on a job in an academic setting at a research intensive university, teaching experience pales in comparison to research productivity – whereas a school with a stronger focus on undergrad teaching will look at teaching experience through a different lens. The good news – I think it is entirely possible to be both a great researcher and a great teacher -the experience and expertise complement each other, in important ways. However, from a purely CV-building perspective, if the goal is an academic position, research productivity trumps teaching. Unfortunate, but true, in my opinion – which, as many will tell you, and as you know ๐Ÿ™‚ is often wrong.

    • TGIQ January 31, 2012 at 8:00 AM

      Thanks for joining in on this conversation, Chris. What you’ve said rings true and seems to be echoed by many others who have commented here. I guess my followup question would be: “should teaching matter more than it does?” ๐Ÿ™‚ That’s probably a discussion for another day, though.

  3. anon January 30, 2012 at 1:41 PM

    When/if I finally go back to school for a Master’s in Insect Ecology (or some such related topic) I want you to be a professor of mine! Certainly watch out for your career, but please find a way to keep your interest in teaching. Wish there were more like you.

    • TGIQ January 31, 2012 at 8:01 AM

      Hey there, “anon”, thanks for taking the time to comment. Perhaps our paths will cross one day down the road? If they do, you’ll have to remind me of this conversation (since you have the distinct advantage of know who I am) ๐Ÿ™‚ Best of luck with whatever educational road you end up following!

  4. Susan January 30, 2012 at 4:08 PM

    It has been a few years since I was a college student, but I did come away from the experience wondering why universities couldn’t figure out how to hire great teachers (and let them teach) and great researchers (and let them research) so that we (the lowly students) could benefit from both. Yes, there are those unique individuals out there that are good at both teaching & researching but many excel in one area and just tread water in the other. I’ve had classes from great researchers who were horrible teachers and seen great teachers be pushed out of academia because they didn’t publish enough. I like Alex Webb’s comments above – just because it may not go on a CV doesn’t mean it isn’t important.

    • TGIQ January 31, 2012 at 8:03 AM

      This is an interesting idea, Susan (i.e., having separate functions for “teachers” and “researchers” in the same institution). Is this done anywhere? I know that not everyone is a good teacher (or even interested in it for that matter) but it would be nice if more experts (i.e., researchers) were able to communicate about their areas of expertise more effectively…

  5. Steven January 30, 2012 at 4:47 PM

    Truthfully, my experience thus far has been that it depends a lot on where you go and your eventual goal. I was gung-ho to do some teaching when I started my postdoc down here in Australia, only to find out that down here grad students and postdocs almost *never* teach. But if you are aiming for universities in other systems, especially North American and especially some of the ones in the US, it could indeed be more important.

    In the broad view, though, if you’re focused on a research career, I think that a passion for teaching will always be discounted by many around you. Doesn’t mean you have to let them impose that view on you, however.

    • TGIQ January 31, 2012 at 8:05 AM

      Wow, really? Is it common throughout Australian institutions? (I ask, because I’ve got this idea that maybe I’ll look to Australia for a post-doc in a few years). I understand that postdocs are mainly research-centric positions, but don’t they even have TA positions for grad students?
      I just don’t understand why good teaching can’t be or isn’t valued by research-type-scientists. Yeesh.

      • stevenhamblin January 31, 2012 at 9:04 AM

        Like anything else, I’m sure that it varies by institution. But if you are going to consider postdoc-ing down here – which has *many* attractive advantages – I would just suggest that you be up front and ask about teaching opportunities before you commit to anything. ๐Ÿ™‚

        • TGIQ January 31, 2012 at 10:29 AM

          Thanks, Steve. I really appreciate this first-hand information!

        • biodiversityinfocus January 31, 2012 at 10:32 AM

          Ditto! Social Media & Blogging Win!

        • TGIQ January 31, 2012 at 10:35 AM

          Since I have your attention here, Steve, I’m going to ask about something almost unrelated: I heard rumours that funding available for post-docs is significant (i.e., there is lots to go around and that individual fellowships are…well, financially sweet.) Any truth to that?

          • stevenhamblin January 31, 2012 at 7:41 PM

            Uh, yes and no: there’s trade-offs to be recognized here. In absolute dollar value, yeah, the amount of money is pretty good. In Canadian dollars, I’m making just shy of twice what an NSERC PDF would pay. And government support for science out here does *seem* to be significantly better than it is right now in Canada. On the other hand, the value of that will vary where you live; the exact position on the list depends on when you read it, but Sydney is almost always one of the top 10 priciest cities in the world to live in, and the amount that things cost here has been absolutely shocking. Rent is expensive, and the places you live in will be a lot different than you’d expect in most Canadian cities.

            I may make it sound bad, but it’s not. My wife and I comfortably live on my salary (she’s had trouble landing work as a teacher, but that’s mostly down to bureaucracy), and we’re even planning to travel this year. Rent and food may be expensive, but I also live 10-15 minute away from a great beach on the Pacific ocean. Sydney is a fantastic place to live, and is one of the most vibrant cities I’ve been in – even compared to places like Montrรฉal where I lived for 2 years – and other places in Australia are great too. But I won’t lie, if you’re planning on applying here there are some questions you would have to ask before hand. And be sure to ask as many people as possible when you do; you have my e-mail now, so feel free to reach out and let me know if I can answer any other questions. ๐Ÿ™‚

  6. David Winter January 30, 2012 at 5:48 PM

    At least down here in another austral system – teaching won’t get you a postdoc and pales in comparison to a papers on the academic track too. I think it’s like outreach – if there are two otherwise equally qualified people vying for a job, a good record might swing it for you but don’t bet on it.

    I really enjoy teaching, so I make time for it, I just don’t kid myself that the time I spend on it is adding very much to my CV.

  7. dragonflywoman January 30, 2012 at 6:31 PM

    I think it is a travesty that teaching is so little valued at the big research universities these days. One of the very first things my advisor told me as I started my grad career after graduating from a tiny private liberal arts college was this: “The quality of teaching here will be nothing like what you’re used to.” That statement has stuck with me and has made me pay attention to the teaching at my university in a way I might not have done otherwise. And, it’s 100% true! The vast majority of my teachers have done a decent job teaching, but few of them have done a great job. It is obvious that most of them would rather be doing something else and find teaching tedious, so they only do the bare minimum. But, if you consider that many appointments at my university are 90% research and 10% teaching, you can see why people put so little effort into becoming good teachers – that’s not what they’re here to do and teaching is merely an afterthought. (My favorite and best prof as a grad student has a 90% teaching,10% research appointment – and it’s obvious that he cares about teaching in a way none of my other profs do.) Many departments then train their students to become researchers and often entirely ignore their development as teachers, justifying this oversight by clinging to the belief that the students coming out of grad programs will “muddle through somehow” and “figure it out,” just like they did.

    However, as someone (like you) who cares deeply about teaching, I think this does an incredible disservice to the undergrads at my university. They’re here to get an education, yet the students that come out of the undergrad programs here (a university that prides itself for being a top tier research institution and thus attracts top talent that produces groundbreaking research) are FAR less prepared within their fields than people from my tiny little college were. My undergrad college encouraged research among its professors, but teaching was a priority there. When I compare what I knew coming out of college, my abilities to write and think scientifically, to what I see in my upper division undergrads here… Well, it doesn’t even compare. I really wanted to go to my grad university as an undergrad, but now I give thanks everyday that I went to my little college instead! I think that’s sad. I think that’s terrible. I think it’s ridiculous to offer classes at all when profs are so focused on their research that they simply “get by” in their teaching and “muddle through somehow.” In doing so, we’re telling the people we’re supposed to be educating and training for future careers that they, sometimes literally, matter less than the fungus growing in the lab.

    All of these observations have convinced me that research one universities are not for me. I know I am being trained primarily as a researcher here. I’ve been told by several people in my department that it isn’t their job to train me as a teacher, that teaching isn’t important. So, I take every opportunity to teach so I can train myself. I read about teaching philosophies and pedagogy on my own so that I understand what I’m doing, why I’m doing it, and how to improve. I take pride in the fact that I’ve won teaching awards and consistently receive excellent evaluations. And, when I’m done with my Ph.D., I’m getting the hell out of research one and heading straight back to my little liberal arts colleges! I don’t want to be a part of a giant research machine. I’d rather make a difference in the lives of students, to inspire them to explore the world and develop their minds. I can’t do that in a research one environment, but I can at a smaller college. I participated in the hiring process for several profs at both my undergrad college and my current university, and I know firsthand that what they were looking for at my undergrad college was very different than what my current department looks for and… teaching mattered there! Since then I’ve talked to several other profs from other small colleges at conferences and have heard the same thing – smaller colleges value teaching in a way the big research institutions do not. I talked to one woman at a conference, a woman who had been on the hiring committee for several new hires in her program, that I wanted to work at a smaller college like hers and the first thing she asked me was, “How much teaching experience do you have?” That sort of environment is exactly what I want and thus where I am headed when I’m finished with my degree.

    I got a little ranty here, but I guess what I mean to say with all this is that there ARE opportunities for academics who love to teach. People who hire for those jobs WILL look at your teaching experience and will think it’s marvelous that you took the initiative to restructure a course as a grad student. Getting a Ph.D. with the goal of teaching at a smaller college (or a museum or…) might not be the “traditional” path in academia, but it’s an important one too – and one that might be better suited to your interests and passions than your current environment. At the right institution or in the right position, you can make a difference as both a researcher AND a teacher. It’s just a matter of seeking those opportunities out and being willing to follow the road less traveled. Just something to consider!

    And with that, I need to finish my presentation for tomorrow’s class… ๐Ÿ™‚

    • TGIQ January 31, 2012 at 8:16 AM

      First: RIGHT ON, SISTER! I agree with so much of what you just said (pretty much all of it, actually).

      Next, I have to admit that I really am poorly informed about the US post-secondary education system. Until last night, I thought that “college” was largely synonymous with what we Canadians call “university”, i.e., a place where students can go to complete a 4-yr degree program and where there would likely be graduate programs as well (here, a “college” is where you go to get a 2-3 yr diploma, certificate etc.). So in my reading I discovered the distinctions between US colleges (I assume these are the same as “liberal arts colleges”) and universities. I am having a hard time relating this to the Canuk system, but I suppose there are more research-centric/grad-program-heavy universities here, while others emphasize undergrad training (the distinction is just not as clear).

      All that to say, you’ve got me thinking about the KIND of institutions at which I might want to work eventually, and truthfully, I’d never really given it that much thought before. I know that I have time to figure this out (a few years, anyways) but you have definitely given me some food for thought. Thanks for sharing your perspectives and experiences ๐Ÿ™‚

  8. biodiversityinfocus January 30, 2012 at 9:44 PM

    This is a great post, and a question that’s been on my mind as I find myself doing more teaching than research this semester. I agree with the Chris’s that in large part it matters where you want to work that matters and which will ultimately affect your job prospects. While the US has several tiers where faculty are focused on different aspects, here in Canada I feel each university is looking for a relative balance between research & teaching, and each endeavors to provide the best experience for both their students and their research interests.

    Looking through the McGill and University of Guelph Mission Statements, they both highly value education and learning, with Guelph stating:
    “The University of Guelph is committed to the highest standards of pedagogy, to the education and well-being of the whole person, to meeting the needs of all learners in a purposefully diverse community, to the pursuit of its articulated learning objectives, to rigorous self-assessment, and to a curriculum that fosters creativity, skill development, critical inquiry, and active learning. The University of Guelph educates students for life and work in a rapidly changing world.”

    To me, that means an individual who excels at teaching, who has put in extra effort to improve their communication and outreach skills, and who has a passion for facilitating student learning should be more highly sought after by hiring committees. Of course, what a university says they regard most highly may not actually be supported, with each department/college/university seemingly putting more and more value in the bottom line through big-grant research dollars and warm undergraduates in the seats (regardless of who’s at the front of the room ‘teaching’).

    That being said, I’ve always been a big believer in doing what makes you happiest, and that hard work will pay off in some way (a philosophy which has served me well so far). Will a CV with 1 or 2 less papers but a clear passion for teaching & outreach be as highly sought out in the next 5 years? I’m not sure. But I do know you’ll enjoy those 5 years more, and will have set yourself up for a wider array of positions when it comes time to apply. I would have killed to have a TA or prof as dedicated to teaching and the student experience as you are, and I’m confident that those qualities will be rewarded in the future. Keep up the passion and the excellent work!

    • TGIQ January 31, 2012 at 8:21 AM

      Of course, what a university says they regard most highly may not actually be supported, with each department/college/university seemingly putting more and more value in the bottom line through big-grant research dollars and warm undergraduates in the seats (regardless of whoโ€™s at the front of the room โ€˜teachingโ€™).

      I think maybe this is what bothers me the most…the disingenuousness. I often feel like universities advertise their services as trainers/shapers/instructors of undergrads, then completely let them down. I wonder if we don’t lose a great number of potentially amazing researchers/professionals because the undergrad experience does not live up to the expectations of new students.

      • Morgan Jackson January 31, 2012 at 10:40 AM

        That’s an important point, which the Dragonfly Lady commented on; good teaching universities are feeding excited students into graduate programs at big research institutions. It would seem to me that inspiring and keeping as many students as possible in your own system (those who may have started projects as undergrads with little to no funding attached but which created interesting results & papers) would have greater long-term benefits than disenchanting your undergrads and constantly fishing for new students from outside your school. Of course, I might be completely naive about all of this as well, which has been known to happen on occasion…

  9. SciencePlug January 31, 2012 at 10:31 AM

    Of course, teaching skills matter!
    Here at Karolinska, as in all Sweden, administrators and grant’s judgers give great weight to your “additional CV”: what did you do during your PhD study BUT writing papers?
    I also’d like to add: everybody writes and publish articles. Some of us do it well and with high-impacts, some a bit lower-graded. To my understanding, the journal (therefore the visibility and the credits of your articles) where you publish, depend primarily from your _last name_. Who are you working for. This isn’t exiting for a PhD students, who knows where approx her/his work will end up to…
    That’s why the most important thing at this stage is: what can I do PERSONALLY that is different from all the rest? How can I take all the acknowledgment for what I do?
    This is the true extra value that you can put in your CV, now.
    And this has higher impact then you articles, at the end.

    • TGIQ January 31, 2012 at 10:49 AM

      Hi there! Thanks for: 1. stopping by and commenting (nice to meet you!) and, 2. providing a European perspective on this issue! I’m glad to hear that Swedish universities recognize the importance of the “extras” that some of us like to do and find so important. I know that I personally appreciate working with colleagues, professors, etc. who are more well-rounded and don’t spend their ENTIRE lives glued to their lab bench or computer keyboard – it’s all the little “extras” that they bring to the table that makes interactions and discussions with them that much better and more interesting!

  10. Stelio Chatzimanolis (@staphnut) January 31, 2012 at 6:26 PM

    As someone who is teaching at a master’s level university in the southeast, I would say that teaching does matter! As a matter of fact, you will not get tenure in my institution unless you have excellent teaching evaluations. I guess I’d say that teaching does matter unless you are in an R1 institution.

    • TGIQ March 5, 2012 at 3:22 PM

      I’m not sure how I missed this reply earlier…late to the party again! This is great news, and gives me renewed hope. Thank you so much for contributing this information!

  11. itsybitsybeetle February 4, 2012 at 11:42 PM

    Hi buggeek! Thanks so much for posting about this specific topic. I absolutely agree with everything that Dragonfly Lady said in her response, so I won’t reiterate that. I’m in a graduate department at a research one institution as well and the emphasis on teaching is absolutely pathetic. I’d like to bring up the point that departments and advisors should really take the time to realize that their graduate students have many different passions and aspirations. It seems that your advisor simply gave you an answer if your aspirations were to become an R1 faculty member. But maybe your longterm goals are different and those that advise should definitely recognize that. Unfortunately, quite often, they don’t. I think this also ties in with academic advisors having absolutely no mentorship or advisement training, but that is another whole can of worms…

    Anyway, thanks again for this post. A group of graduate students in my department just started up a “teaching counts” discussion so those of us passionate about teaching can meet and discuss pedagogical issues that are important to us. I’m sure there are others in your department that have similar passions to your own in regards to the importance of teaching. I’ve found that it’s wonderful to have that sort of support group.

    • TGIQ February 5, 2012 at 8:34 AM

      Hi itstybitsybeetle (sounds like a blog I need to check out!), thanks for chiming in on this conversation. I think that yes, perhaps my advisor did say what he said with that assumption (R1-type aspirations)…but, to be fair, I’ve never spelled out my aspirations to him before! In fact, you’ll note in one of my comments here, I don’t think I’d spelled out my aspirations to myself, either! The next time I met with him after this post went up, we had a really excellent and frank discussion about teaching and how it fits in the job hunting/application process at different institutions. He is a person who cares deeply about teaching and doing it well – he’s a mentor to me in that regard (and many others) and has never discouraged me from pursuing that aspect of my academic training (in fact, my first publication as a PhD candidate is going to be about education, not my core research!)

      He said something interesting to me: “be good at everything” – as in, “be good at research AND teaching” – and he has an excellent point. If you strive to achieve greatness in different areas, it can only help you down the road, even if it doesn’t pay off immediately or during a certain point in your career. I thought it was excellent advice.

      I’m glad you’ve got friends in your department with whom you can share your interest in teaching – I think the role of the TA is absolutely critical in undergraduate instruction, but it’s generally undervalued. TAs are often un- or under-trained and have little autonomy or say in how or what they get to teach. It can lead to frustration and dissatisfaction for everyone. You and your teeching-keen peers will make a difference in the lives of your students for sure! ๐Ÿ™‚

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