My fellow PhD alums recently organized a teaching conference which included a panel about careers outside academia. As one of two attendees not working in a faculty position, I was asked to participate. The other panelist recounted how she had gone from a teaching job to a position as a fiscal analyst for the state house of representatives. One of her first projects involved research that cinched last minute negotiations to increase the state's minimum wage.
I had no similar stories to entice the audience into the life of an instructional designer. Frankly, I had no idea what I was going to say. With only the vaguest of plans, I stood up, walked over to the whiteboard, and wrote an equation:
PhD = C + R + ⅒P
Speaking for the alums and graduate students in the room, I noted that a doctoral education in Political Science provides three things: a comprehensive knowledge of the content in a subject area, a set of research skills, and a very small exposure to the art of teaching and pedagogy. I would imagine that most academic disciplines are similar. My panelmate had parlayed the first two terms of the equation into a job in state government. My non-academic job drew on my teaching experience, the equation's third term.
By the end my only goal was to remind everyone that their doctorate equipped them for work beyond the bounds of politics. I'm not sure if that came through coherently or not, or if I was even the best spokesperson for the point. Writing that simple equation on the board and listening to my colleagues, however, had made me painfully aware of a double irony in the way we train college faculty.
I'm not talking about the fairly common observation that college faculty aren't trained in how to teach. This "irony zero" is the flip side of what I'll discuss below. It's also a recognized problem with nascent solutions. Graduate programs themselves and outside groups like Preparing Future Faculty have tried to increase the pedagogical training and experience of the average academic in training. Any such improvement is welcome. But the amount and importance of such training is still minuscule in comparison to the value placed on developing scholarship skills—especially at the most prestigious universities.
That disparity is the heart of my first irony. While many teaching-focused schools have tried to maintain or increase the importance of original research for their faculty, most PhD holders will find themselves at institutions where teaching is the primary responsibility and research is a rare luxury. R1 schools are the exception, not the rule. The irony here is not that most faculty will begin their jobs with little training in a skill they desperately need: the art of teaching. Rather, it's the flip side—that their graduate education placed so much emphasis on a skill they will seldom have occasion to use. Given the demands of teaching and institutional service at many schools, simply attending a conference may count as a commitment to research and scholarship.
The dissertation is the focal point of this irony. The procedural and psychological weight placed on the dissertation far outpaces the value of such research after graduation. A side effect of this irony, as a recent blog post illustrates, is that individuals who fail to complete their dissertation find themselves with the skills and content-knowledge required for teaching but without the piece of paper that is the ticket to a good teaching position. Need proof of the dissertation's "trial by fire" role within higher education? Look no further than the comments section of the blog post mentioned above.
The second irony arises from the imbalance in what a PhD provides. The "content" component of a doctoral education ensures a broad and foundational understanding of a discipline's collected knowledge. The emphasis on research encourages a depth and intensity of focus on one small area of the discipline (see this comic strip for a great illustration). Broad synoptic knowledge and deep focus on a particular subject are the recipe for academic expertise. But in their book Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel observe that ironically, an expert level of knowledge actually becomes a cognitive obstacle to teaching that information to novices.
This effect is called the "curse of knowledge." Expertise is not embodied in some vast mental bookshelf that can be drawn upon at will. Instead, expertise involves the hard-wiring of specific mental models and thought patterns that literally make it difficult to view a subject from the point of view of someone who lacks that experience. When our undergraduates need second and third explanations of what we consider basic ideas, the problem may not be that they're hopelessly obtuse. We might be the ones that are obtuse.
Obviously this is not an insurmountable problem; experts have been instructing novices for some time now and everyone seems happy enough with the outcome. The real question is how much better could things be if the "P" term in the PhD equation weren't so small and the "R" term was adjusted to meet the realities that most faculty will encounter in their jobs—including the inevitability of novice students who don't yet share our expert view of the world.
What would a better way look like? In her blog essay, Jill Yesko proposed creating a new degree or academic status for doctoral candidates who fall short of completing their dissertation. Her goal was to recognize the knowledge and experience gained on the way to a doctorate, not to help prepare more effective faculty. Still, her general approach could work for our purposes as well. Instead of complicating the degree structure vertically, though, a better option might be to leverage the existing idea of joint degrees. Only after I entered graduate school did I realize how much of an interest I had in law and the judiciary. Had I known this before, I would have taken advantage of the joint PhD/JD program my department had with the law school—a program which would have given me a broader set of knowledge and skills.
The same principle might be the way to serve the legions of faculty whose workload will always contain more teaching than research. Whether formally or informally, doctoral students could be dual-admitted to their home discipline as well as their institution's college or school of education. Students would take courses in pedagogy, educational psychology, and even cognitive science as their graduate minor or cognate requirement—though ideally they would take more than just the handful of courses most doctoral students take outside their discipline.
To maintain the idea that research should be an important element of a doctoral education, participants in our joint program could focus on the scholarship of teaching and learning, with a special emphasis on their home discipline. Time as a TA would give students experience in the classroom and the opportunity to observe pedagogy at work in the trenches. Teaching their own courses as a graduate instructor would be the perfect opportunity to test research designs for a SoTL-focused dissertation.
Good measures of faculty workload are hard to find, but those that exist confirm the anecdotal evidence. A majority of faculty time is spent on teaching, not research. While breaking down these results by the type of institution would show wide variability, it wouldn't change the fact that the gateway to college teaching—the doctoral degree—fails to prepare our professoriate for the work they'll be doing. Programs like Preparing Future Faculty help fill the gap, and university centers for teaching can provide some measure of "on the job training." But should they have to? Clearly there would be obstacles—big obstacles—to changing doctoral education. But at this point in history where higher education faces criticism, challenges, and potential disruptions from all sides, some form of dramatic change may be necessary.