VOLUME 11, No. 5                                            DUKE UNIVERSITY                                                    JANUARY 2000


Lee on Teaching Science

Rojstaczer on Teaching Science

Editorial on APT review

Mueller, Letter to Editor

Kumin, Visiting Poet

Editorial Policy

How We Broke Academia

--by Alfred Lee (Physics)

"Whoever is a teacher through and through takes all things seriously only in relation to his students--even himself." ­ Nietzsche

    The role of the university science professor is nearly dead. This was not caused by external forces. The professors themselves have chosen to destroy their own profession.

    First a definition: a university science professor is a person active in leading edge research, i.e., research that advances our understanding of nature. He1 is also a person who teaches ­ both undergraduates in the foundations of the discipline, and graduate students in the advanced topics and practices of the field. The former distinguishes a university professor from a small college or teaching university professor; the later distinguishes him from a researcher at a national laboratory or private foundation.

    Why have both roles in one person? From the students' point of view, there are clear advantages. The professor brings knowledge from the frontlines, and is kept sharp by the rigors of research. If there have been advances in the discipline since he was in graduate school, the professor will need to keep up ­ at least in his sub-discipline. A secondary effect is that able people, who might be bored by only teaching, can be enticed to remain in academia by the possibility of doing research.

    Here is the essential conflict: the science professor takes nothing from his teaching back to his research. While in non-scientific areas, it may be possible to merge preparations for a class with research endeavors (e.g., lecture notes from an undergraduate course on "Insurgencies in South East Asia" could lead to a book on the same topic), in the sciences such opportunities are rare.

    In physics there is no such synergy. I have never taught a course in 7 years at Duke that advanced my research at all. There is not even such a course (graduate or undergraduate) offered by my department. This is not to say the courses I taught were not interesting to teach, but they were so only from an intellectual or pedagogical viewpoint.

    The lack of value in teaching for advancing research would not be a problem, had we not broken academia. The problem is the current reward structure, which was created over the last 50 years by the professors themselves, either in their departments, or as deans. Research has become the only activity that is rewarded.

    Here is how it works in the physics department: a person is hired as an assistant professor for his research. It is laughable how teaching is addressed: if the job talk is tolerable, everyone mumbles something about how he should be a good teacher, then quickly move onto his chance for future research excellence, including the very important question of funding.

    Later, when being considered for tenure, the case turns completely on published papers, grants, and external letters from experts in the field. Given the disparate styles of the various sub-disciplines in physics (and the fact we cannot read each other's papers), the external letters from experts in the sub-field take the lion's share of the weight. These letters all begin with the caveat, "I have never seen Joe Schmoe lecture, so I cannot comment on his teaching ability. However, his research."

    The priority of research doesn't end with tenure. The promotion to full professor likewise is determined by external letters. Similarly, the best way to get your salary increased is by getting an outside offer. There is not a research university in the country that will make a tenured "poaching" offer for good teaching. The standing of the professor's research, particularly as demonstrated by the support of researchers not at his home institution, is the key.

    So we have professors who are rewarded solely for how they are perceived in their research communities. Teaching adds nothing to their research productivity. The time teaching takes is a serious impediment. Is it any surprise that "buyouts" of teaching time through grant money, demands for lower teaching loads,2 and simply spending the least time possible on a course are the norm?

    Where is this leading? I have seen the future, and it is the Medical Center (or should I call it the Health System?). It no longer has any university professors. Everyone there is either a research or clinical professor. The former is completely supported by external grants; the later is supported by revenue from seeing patients.

    Yes, there are faculty in the Medical Center who do not officially have either "research" or "clinical" in front of their titles. Let us be clear: while the administration has become a little more politic, no longer regularly distributing "P & L" sheets to all faculty,3 tenure track faculty still must justify their salary by research, and the grants it brings in, or by revenue from seeing patients. Do neither, and even tenure cannot prevent you from getting the boot.

    Who teaches the medical students? Given that they number only a few hundred, and only generate about $10 million in tuition revenue in a system with a budget of more than $600 million, they are handled at the edges. Both clinical and research faculty take in some medical students for training, but keep the time spent on them to a minimum. The students can be used as apprentices, so may actually be useful (like graduate students in Arts and Sciences) for advancing the professor's research.

    Clearly, with 6,000 undergraduates, and no clinical revenue, the model in Arts and Sciences will be different. Here it will be research professors and "professors of the practice" (PoP's). The research professors will be much the same as those in the Medical Center: supported by external grants, and having little contact with undergraduates.

    PoP's are basically small college professors who have fallen into a research university. They teach a heavy load (2 to 4 courses per term), and are judged on their teaching alone. If they do any research, it generally is limited to pedagogical issues. Computer science, chemistry, and math already have PoP's, and physics is on track to do so as well.

    Once the faculty split has become complete, one could ask why we bother to keep research professors and PoP's together in the same institution. The undergraduate students would be better served by dividing Trinity into three or four small colleges. The graduate school, and all the research professors, could be spun off as an independently funded research institute. Thus will end the 50-year experiment of the comprehensive research university. While a noble plan, the central role of teacher-scientist could not be prevented from self-destruction.

    "We need only the will to recast our incentive system to support excellent teaching as well as excellent research, and a vision of how much enriched we all will be if we succeed."
                                                                              --President Nannerl Keohane, Inaugural Address, 1993

1 Given that only 2 out of the approximately 50 tenure-track faculty in my building are female, I feel safe in using the masculine pronoun.

2 A significant number of physics faculty teach only one course per year, and the rest only teach one course per term. The most coveted are upper level undergraduate and graduate courses, which generally have less than a dozen students.

3 For those not familiar, P & L stands for profit and loss. Profit is explicit lines in grants to pay the professor's salary, and the actual revenue received by the Medical Center for the patients seen by that doctor. Loss is the doctor's salary, salary of support staff, and general overhead.

                                                                           IS APT EPT?

    We admit at once that we wouldn't want the job--and we thank God someone else is there to do it. We will go further and admit that it really can't be done, by us or anyone else, and that anyone willing to try deserves only praise and gratitude from those of us who have escaped this duty up to now. And so we admit that under the circumstances, whoever is on the APT Committee is doing the best either they or we can do.

    That is all anyone can ask of the personnel on the University's Appointments, Promotions, and Tenure Committee. But as the Academic Council undertakes to review the APT process, we can ask whether the structures and strictures of the process can be simplified and brought back into a reasonable correlation with the real world we live in. As it stands now, the legalistic mind-set of the process requires tons of paperwork that neither affords added integrity to the process, as it purports to do, nor results in better decisions regarding candidates under review. Instead, what the process has inevitably produced is a culture of hyperbole whose effects resemble on the faculty level the wave of grade inflation that devalued our academic currency-exchange during the Vietnam War.

    Thus, to compete with other departments for new appointments, it does not suffice to call Professor X a very fine, accomplished professional: her status must be affirmed as "one of the three best in the nation (or maybe the world)" in that field--as though that status were a knowable fact. It gets even worse for the lower ranks, where an associate up for tenure must rank within the top six (or four or three) among his peers in that field, and one's referees had better name the other five as though this were knowable information. The referees themselves, though chosen by an "arm's length" standard (no former colleagues or grad school buddies), can easily discern what an old professional chum wants (after seeing each other at a score of conferences) and may well join the game in a spirit of fellow feeling. After all, favors may be needed in return some day. This is not to say that these parties are corrupt, just that the system puts a degraded coinage into play which rachets up the hype beyond reason.

    The unluckiest victims of our institutional delusions of grandeur are our young seekers of tenure. As the Academic Council proceeds to review its APT process, I urge its members to consider the statement of an expert in the academic book market that I included in an editorial last spring (FF, March 1999, "Seeking Tenure in a Failing Book Market"):

"Suppose, against all odds, an assistant professor succeeds in transforming a dissertation into a first-rate monograph within three or four years: Will he or she be able to get it published? Not likely. . . . "

    If the current review of APT can honestly discuss problems such as those mentioned here, it will be worthwhile. But if it results in even greater delusions of grandeur, imposing still greater unrealism on our young tenure-seekers, it is not worth doing.

EdNote: As space permits, we plan to present excerpts from Gone for Good: Tales of University Life After the Golden Age, by Stuart Rojstaczer, copyright 1999 by Oxford University Press. Published by arrangement with Oxford University Press, New York.


--by Stuart Rojstaczer

    After six years of declining enrollments, I decided that I had to completely revamp my teaching approach for undergraduates. I didn't want to teach to nearly empty classrooms and neither did Duke want such a thing.

    At about this time, my university came to the realization that the era of exponential growth in higher education had ended. In response, the administration began to examine its balance sheets more carefully. They began a serious accounting of anything that could be quantified. One facet of a university that can be quantified easily is student enrollment. In its accounting of student enrollment, our administration found my department lacking. We were teaching half as many students per faculty member as a typical department. We were under the gun to increase our numbers.

    So I made a bold retreat. I would now recognize the changes that had taken place over the years. I would now largely ignore detail, focus almost entirely on the big picture, reduce the workload, and grade easier. My major goal had become less ambitious and more pragmatic. I wanted my students to be well-informed citizens who could think somewhat critically about scientific issues that affected society.

    I employed this approach for the first time in an upper-division class. All through the semester, I kept it easy and relatively light. To keep myself from feeling too bad about selling out my educational principles, I kept reciting the phrase "informed citizen" to myself like a mantra. I hoped that none of these students would go on to graduate school. I felt that I had abrogated my responsibility to train them to be scientists.

    The reaction to this new approach was enthusiastic. I gave lots of As (to about 30 percent of the class), which I'm sure helped matters. I reduced the workload by about half and reduced the amount of material by about a third relative to previous classes. I did not completely cave in. I still required them to write short essay exams. I still required them to think about what they had heard in class and in the text, but a lot less thoughtfully than before. Basically, I decided to stretch them only a tiny bit. If my classes were a track and field high jump, what I did was lower the bar a good meter. To do well, they did not have to work as hard or be as talented. Instead of having to work the "onerous" five to ten hours per week I previously expected in an upper division class, they worked an average of three hours a week.

    In reading the student evaluations of this class, it was clear that I was now much more in line with other classes at my university. The students noted that the class made them think and that it wasn't the usual memorize and spit it out science class. These students were science majors, so I didn't have to get over the barrier of convincing them that science was interesting.

    They also noted that they enjoyed the dynamics of the class. This seemed odd to me. I didn't ask for or receive much participation from this particular class. There were jokes that went back and forth between myself and the students about class logistics (tests, field trips, etc.) and issues of the day that had nothing to do with the class material. But little substantive interaction was going on. I think what they were saying was that they appreciated the lightheartedness with which I approached the class. I think that they also appreciated the dynamics associated with a "sit back and learn" approach to education.

    After I read the reviews, I remembered a performance evaluation that I received the year previous from the committee that approved my tenure. They noted that I was considered demanding in the classroom, and characterized my teaching performance as "average." They, however, expressed "confidence that he will learn the skills necessary to become an excellent teacher." I laughed to myself thinking about this comment. The committee was right. I was a ridiculously slow learner, but I had learned the value of changing with the times and teaching easier.

    So I'll play devil's advocate here and say what is wrong with having a happy classroom full of students? Sure, I only give them half to two-thirds of what I would like to give them. Sure, the material I've dropped is the most difficult. But the students learn something, don't they? And they like learning it, don't they? Won't they retain more of what they have learned this way? Isn't this better than having a classroom with too few students?

    My answer to the devil is that yes, given the generally low expectations we have for our students, this is the better way to teach. But if we raised our standards, the students could do the work. With high standards present across the university, they would not think twice about putting in five hours a week outside of class or ten hours a week for that matter. They might be able to enjoy a well-taught class that required them to work hard because that class would represent the expectation of the university at large. This would not be a novel approach either. We expected more of our students in the recent past.

    At a place like my university, we get bright students and probably about one third of them are also motivated and mature when they arrive. Another third, in the context of a university with high standards, would get up to speed and develop their motivation and maturity. But we are generally not challenging students at most universities, including my own. We let them coast if they choose to do so.


Stuart Rojstaczer, Associate Professor of Hydrology, is the Director of the Center for Hydrologic Science.  He may be reached by email at


Dear Editor:

    As physicist recently turned administrator I always read your "Science for Laypersons" column with interest and often quite a bit of amusement. I was quite shocked, however, when I read in the December 1999 issue ("The Ions Have It") that the air we all breathe had become very thin: just 2.5x10^19 molecules per cubic meter. A quick estimate showed that this corresponds to just about 1 millionth of the density of air that I was used to breathing before moving into an office in Allen Building. Fortunately, a quick check of the original Scientific American article by Shawn Carlson on the World Wide Web provided consolation: 2.5x10^19 is the number of molecules in a cubic centimeter of air, not a cubic meter. Please, let the laypersons among our faculty know that they can breathe comfortably, again.

Happy Holidays & a Happy New Year

                --Berndt Mueller

                    Dean of the Natural Sciences & J.B. Duke Professor of Physics



EdNote: Maxine Kumin will visit Duke as part of the Blackburn Festival this spring.  Born in Philadelphia in 1925. She has published eleven books of poetry, including Up Country: Poems of New England (1972), for which she received the Pulitzer Prize.
The following poem is one of her most frequently anthologized:


                                 Gassing the woodchucks didn't turn out right.

                                 The knockout bomb from the Feed and Grain Exchange

                                  was featured as merciful, quick at the bone

                                  and the case we had against them was airtight,

                                  both exits shoehorned shut with puddingstone,

                                  but they had a sub-sub-basement out of range.

                                Next morning they turned up again, no worse

                                for the cyanide than we for our cigarettes

                                and state-store Scotch, all of us up to scratch.

                                They brought down the marigolds as a matter of course

                                and then took over the vegetable patch

                                nipping the broccoli shoots, beheading the carrots.

                                The food from our mouths, I said, righteously thrilling

                                to the feel of the .22, the bullets' neat noses.

                                I, a lapsed pacifist fallen from grace

                                puffed with Darwinian pieties for killing,

                                now drew a bead on the little woodchuck's face.

                                He died down in the everbearing roses.

                                Ten minutes later I dropped the mother. She

                                flipflopped in the air and fell, her needle teeth

                                still hooked in a leaf of early Swiss chard.

                                Another baby next. O one-two-three

                                the murderer inside me rose up hard,

                                the hawkeye killer came on stage forthwith.

                                There's one chuck left. Old wily fellow, he keeps

                                me cocked and ready day after day after day.

                                All night I hunt his humped-up form. I dream

                                I sight along the barrel in my sleep.

                                If only they'd all consented to die unseen

                                gassed underground the quiet Nazi way.



         The Faculty Forum is published monthly by the Academic Council of Duke University.

  Editor: Victor Strandberg (English).  Editorial Advisory Board: Matt Cartmill (Biological Anthropology & Anatomy),
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    The purpose of the Faculty Forum is to provide an opportunity for faculty members to discuss topics of common interest.
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