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The Daily Tar Heel

Column: Those who can't teach, do

Rajee headshot

Opinion writer Rajee Ganesan poses for a portrait. Photo courtesy of Rajee Ganesan.

Have you ever had a professor who was clearly intelligent, but completely clueless when it came to teaching? And even if you turned in the worst course evaluation, they would be protected by tenure? The current academic system allows for scientists and professors to remain as inadequate lecturers and instructors at prestigious universities, as long as they continue to produce high-quality research for the institution.

The University of North Carolina is a top-ranked R1 research university, investing $1.1 billion dollars in research activity every calendar year. In prime location in the Research Triangle, the University serves as a hub for scientists in the social, physical and health sciences. UNC is led by just under 4,000 faculty members, many of whom act as advisers or teach for one of the University’s 104 graduate and 65 doctoral degree programs. 

Generally, professors have completed a doctoral degree before entering the hiring process, producing and publishing original research in their respective fields. From there, they can become a faculty member in multiple tracks; being welcomed as an adjunct professor, being hired on a teaching professor track or teaching on the tenure track. Most of these paths lead to eventually receiving tenure, which guarantees permanent employment from the University and allows for academic freedom in research and teaching. But what comes with being hired by a research institution?

In the basic and interdisciplinary sciences, such as biology, chemistry and physics, faculty are expected to continue performing their own individual research, and producing publications for the university. As a result, most science faculty work in and lead their own laboratories before and after reaching tenure. These laboratories house not only the professor’s research endeavors, but also post-doctoral employees, graduate students and undergraduates. 

But during most doctoral degree programs, students focus solely on how to conduct and publish research effectively. Although some individuals act as teaching assistants for courses or mentor undergraduates during rotations and thesis work, doctoral programs very rarely require curriculum on how to prepare for and teach a lecture course, how to effectively mentor trainees or even how to manage grant money outside of individual projects and among larger groups. 

Of course, some departments, programs and committees do have professional development courses worked into degree requirements, but a vast majority do not. That’s why many current professors advocate for better leadership training for faculty members to create a more effective academic environment for students and colleagues alike.

Researchers are required to go through intensive training by their hiring universities before being provided with the resources to lead their own laboratories. However, in order for the culture of academia to improve, it’s imperative that academia-focused doctoral programs modify and improve their curriculum in order to better prepare students for tenure placement. This includes seminars and courses on current education research and how to teach effectively in different fields of study — what may be effective teaching in biology probably won’t be the same for computer science! 

Academic culture has long been stereotyped as toxic, with endless stories of professors turning evil over a tenure-feud, disagreements over doctoral committee proceedings and arguments over department structures. Graduate education needs to change in order to better prepare faculty members for the truth of academia. This will not only benefit research, faculty relationships and future academics, but improve the institution as a whole.

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