My name is StatGirl and I’m a teach-a-holic

I have a confession to make. I love teaching. And as we approach the start of a new school year, I’m getting ready to teach a new class – an undergraduate biostatistics class to public health majors. This is in stark contrast to anything I have ever taught in my professional career, as I have only taught graduate courses, often advanced doctoral-level classes. My only previous experience teaching undergraduates was over 20 years ago when I was an undergrad myself, teaching introduction to algebra and college algebra to other undergrads. As I’ve been struggling to find time to prepare my syllabus, I got to thinking about teaching in a research world. Many biostatisticians are extremely research-active, often covering high proportions of their salaries through grant funding. This impacts the time available to teach, both from a practical and from a legal perspective. If you are spending 90% of your time on research, then theoretically, it is illegal (andhours worked by academic rank_1 sometimes impossible) to spend more than 10% of your time on teaching. Of course, there is no actual definition of the denominator – academic workload is not always based on a 40-hour workweek: some estimates indicate that academics spend 50-60 hours per week working (although Chairs report the fewest hours worked, Whoohoo!), with some faculty reporting up to 80 hour workweeks! (NOTE: no comment on the quality of some of these charts, which I would never let my students/mentees/coauthors/friends/kids present, but you get the idea).

Teaching requirements differ from institution to institution, and also depend on other expectations. At my former institution, most faculty averaged about 1.5 classes per year in my department, but expectations were that you would cover a very high proportion of your salary through external funding (>70%). If your funding dropped, you could expect to teach more; in fact, more teaching was often seen as a punishment for not doing enough research. However, in my previous department, those who were successful as researchers also often (but not always) really enjoyed teaching, leading to very long hours during semesters while teaching, since the research responsibilities didn’t stop – or even slow down.

At my current institution, the workload policy specifies that teaching activities should account for about 50% of a tenure track faculty member’s effort (research is assigned 30% effort). This translates into about 4 quarter-classes per year for a 12-month appointed faculty member, plus advising students, course development and other teaching activities. Research-active faculty can buy out of a class with an additional 15% research funding; administrative responsibilities also lessen the teaching load. Since I’m just now completing my first year here, I still don’t have a good sense for how the faculty feel about this balance – and since I haven’t taught yet, I don’t have my own perspective. However, my research effort is already approaching 50%, so I already know that I will be working like a crazy woman this quarter.

ecardThese expectations are very different from those of tenure track faculty in primarily teaching institutions, where teaching loads still vary considerably, but can be as high as 4 classes in a single term across each term. There is little data available about what is “typical” from any institution, regardless of whether it is a research-intensive university or a small liberal arts college. Each institution has their own policy, some formal, others ad hoc.

It is also difficult to ascertain how much time is actually spent on teaching activities among tenure track faculty. One small study  at a single doctoral-granting institution published in 2014 (n=30) estimated that faculty spent 40% of their time on teaching-related activities. This is by no means generalizable – the institution at which this research was done is not as research active as many (237th in 2014 for total R&D expenditures), so this could be an overestimate for some. Very old data (1989) from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching showed that the more research funding at an institution, the less time spent on teaching activities, and that the emphasis on teaching-related activities during tenure and promotion is much lower for research-intensive institutions.


So, what do you do if you are at a research-intensive institution but love to teach? There is a lot of advice floating around the internet on this topic, including some that is repeated over and over in academics: “You will never get promoted based on good teaching alone, but being a bad teacher might keep you from getting promoted.” Add to the mix that it is difficult to measure effectiveness of teaching whereas it is much easier to quantify research productivity, and where does that leave us?

I often tell my mentees to do what they love and the rest will follow. If you are not having fun at work, you are wasting your time. If you are not going to get promoted doing what you have fun doing, you are not in the right place (others agree – see #7). If teaching is what you love, this may be a difficult pill to swallow – many faculty at research-intensive institutions train for decades in order to get tenure track positions. However, it is important to be in a place that fits with your goals and talents. I am not advocating quitting a tenure-track position just because you love teaching, but I am suggesting that you should evaluate your expectations and goals, and make sure they are in agreement with those of your chair and institution.

In my past life, I was at an institution that expected faculty to be at least 70% externally funded through grants, and I was routinely 85-90% funded. During my very first faculty meeting, my chair said that there was no reason we couldn’t be 95% funded and still teach.* As a tenure track faculty member, who also had a service requirement, I was floored… how could I be 95% funded, teach well, work with students, and also fulfill the service requirements for tenure? I also remember being told by a trusted mentor that it is okay to only give about 75% to my teaching – while I would know that I wasn’t giving it my all, my students just wouldn’t know the difference. When I was a kid, I wanted to be a teacher. For a semester in college, I was a Math Ed major, but eventually decided I wanted to teach college, which motivated me to get a PhD. Although I learned how much I enjoy research when I was in grad school, I always have, and always will, consider myself a teacher. So this news that students would not be able to tell how much effort I put into my classes was devastating to me. Despite this advice, I still threw myself into my teaching, teaching more than was expected and doing it well.

All these years later, I am still throwing myself in to my teaching. I’m extremely excited for my new challenge in the classroom, despite the time it will take away from other commitments, such as my research and my administrative responsibilities. Let alone the time it will take away from my family. It will be difficult, but I know it will be rewarding because I will be doing something I love, and hopefully I will make impact on the students. In the end, that will make it all worth it.

*Footnote: my chair was always very supportive of my desire to teach and to teach well, and I mean no disrespect to someone for whom I have the utmost respect!

3 thoughts on “My name is StatGirl and I’m a teach-a-holic

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