10

It seems that many universities are rotating professors who teach a subject. I was talking with a friend and he mentioned that as a result of this, he is struggling with a professor who is teaching a subject outside his area and is still learning the materials. My question, is why do schools apply such strategy? Wouldn't it be better to focus on few related topics, instead of assigning professors to some random courses?

  • 3
    One advantage I get is to investigate how subjects in a sequence of courses link together. Therefore I'm better equipped to know what my incoming students should know, and what I should prepare them for in the future. – Daniel R. Collins Mar 24 '16 at 15:51
  • @DanielR.Collins if they are related – Thomas Lee Mar 24 '16 at 15:56
  • 11
    Sometimes there are just courses that have to be taught, and it is not the field of any of the available faculty. – Maarten Buis Mar 24 '16 at 16:01
12
+50

Most programs I've ever heard of don't randomly assign professors - but the typical system in the US I'm aware of has each professor required to teach X number of credits. The department has requirements for what class must be taught (like standard intro classes, courses required for the major, etc), as well as the opening for a variety of specialty courses (often called "electives") - but the core courses have to be taken up first.

While departments differ, it seems the most common system is one where professors pick the classes they will teach (sometimes by seniority or department rank getting their first pick, sometimes by some other method). The natural order of things is that it's easier to teach a class the second time than it is to teach it the first time (since you already have so much material prepared and you have had some practice now), so professors naturally end up teaching many of the same classes year after year. However, most departments have comings and goings nearly every semester - retirements, people leaving, sabbaticals, medical leave, changing course load amounts (buying out of teaching, becoming a department chair, not being the chair anymore, winning a big grant, having a big grant run out). Thus things are constantly in flux, so even if you really, really wanted the same courses taught by the same professors every semester - you can't have it, it isn't possible.

There is a downside to having things static, even when you somehow manage to have so much stability that it's possible. Some examples:

  • Many professors get comfortable with the material enough that they don't make large updates, and it can get stale and out of date over time (both materially and in method used).
  • Professors, being human beings, get bored of saying the same thing over and over and their excitement, passion, and patience can begin to wear thin even with classes they once enjoyed.
  • Some students aren't a good fit with some professors, and if a required class is always taught by a professor they don't get along with this may interfere with academic progress.
  • Professors can lose sight - or just not have a good idea to begin with - what the goal of teaching some material actually is. Most programs have courses that build on each other, like Introduction -> Research Methods -> Stats -> Advanced Research Methods. If you only teach stats and don't ever run an advanced class, are you sure you are teaching the stats students will need - and are you emphasizing applications that best prepare them for the advanced material? If you teach a Calculus I class, are you making sure students get all the groundwork they need for Calculus II? I've had students tell me "the Professor assumed we all had JavaScript in the previous class and designed the whole class around it, but half of us had never seen it before!" - with not very encouraging results.

However, there are downsides to moving people around a lot too:

  • The first time is always the hardest. No one knows what to expect, every question asked will be one you might not have answered before, the teacher's idea of pacing and time required to complete assignments will basically be wild guesses, etc.
  • Sometimes someone is asked to teach a class because no one else is available. I talked with a visiting academic who was a statistician, and he said in his first semester they came to him and said, "Hey, have you ever used C++ before?" He said, "Well, I guess a little bit in undergrad..." And so they said, "Great, don't have anyone else to teach this required class - will you teach a C++ class for us?" So he just had to figure it out as he went. It isn't ideal, but the alternative: no class offered that semester, which may mean students can't take required key classes or they will just miss out on learning important material entirely. Sometimes everyone just has the make the best of a non-ideal situation - come to think of it, that's what most of us have to do most of the time!

In the end, there is a first time for everyone. Experienced professors had to teach a class for the first time too. Sometimes this can even be a positive experience for everyone, if the professor and the student choose to handle it that way. One of the hardest things about teaching people is when you've forgotten what it was like to not know. You can all learn together, and it can be easier to have empathize with students confusion and anticipate their questions when you are confused and have questions too! The job of a teacher isn't always to be an expert bestowing their grand accumulated wisdom, but instead sometimes they are just a guide and skilled companion to help you through difficult territory.

...and sometimes neither of you want to be there, but it's a required course and the department is making them teach it so you suck it up and move on. :)

9

It seems that many universities are rotating professors who teach a subject. Why do schools apply such strategy?

One instance why this may happen is for core courses that need to be taught, and for which no clearly matching faculty is available. My department, for instance, has a very clear focus on applied and practical computer science. For some fundamental courses, we simply do not have obviously matching faculty, and no plans to hire people for this profile either. This leaves us with the options of either finding external people to teach the course (preferred if said people exist and funding for paying the external person is available), or making one of our faculty from a different field teach the course, fully knowing that (a) the faculty will not be happy and (b) that (s)he will probably not do an outstanding job either. Part of convincing said faculty is usually also a promise that (s)he needs to teach this "foster" course only one or two times, before passing the token on to somebody else.

An alternative reason for rotating teachers is that there is more than one faculty that can teach a course, but the course is highly disliked and an agreement was established that multiple people take turns teaching it. I have seen this happen for courses such as "Introduction to Programming", that many people are in principle qualified to teach, but few really want to teach.

Finally, it may be that the school (correctly or incorrectly) assumes that rotating a course will indeed improve the quality of the course or add in some way to it. For instance, in my old alma mater, we had the concept of "AK courses" ("selected topics in SOMETHING"). These courses were advanced courses with no fixed content, only a sort of framework or direction. Every year, a different professor would be teaching it, and give it a completely different spin depending on his own current research interests. You could do the same AK multiple times, assuming that the professors agreed that those years were indeed sufficiently different.

  • What did the "AK" stand for, exactly? – Daniel R. Collins Mar 24 '16 at 17:43
  • 1
    @DanielR.Collins "Ausgewaelte Kapitel" (German for "selected chapters"). For example, there was "Ausgewaelte Kapitel in betrieblichen Informationssystemen", or "selected chapters in enterprise information systems". – xLeitix Mar 25 '16 at 10:52
4

Your question suggests that you are viewing a professor's teaching as "just a job" they have to do. However, this picture is missing a key aspect of our jobs and why we do what we do. For many professors, teaching is a deep source of personal satisfaction, learning and growth. Many if not most of us love to learn new things and expand our knowledge, and teaching a class on a topic we are somewhat familiar with but haven't taught before is a great opportunity to brush up old skills or sometimes master an entirely new area, including on occasion an area that we would like to expand our research to touch upon in the future. This opportunity to learn through teaching and later apply what one has learned to one's own work is one of the great synergies that makes the research+teaching combination such a successful model for academics.

To summarize, it may be helpful (and not entirely inaccurate) to think of professors as "professional students" or "students who never grew up"; that is, students who never got tired of being in university and have made learning more and more about their discipline (and sometimes about other disciplines) a lifelong goal, and were eventually able to turn this passion into a source of employment as well. When you look at it this way, it makes perfect sense that professors would not be very happy teaching the same old basic courses about their main subjects of expertise over and over again.

  • The "main subjects of expertise" is expanding and new things would be added and updated. – Thomas Lee Apr 3 '16 at 22:34
3

I think there are two very different questions here: one is about having faculty teach courses that they are apparently either incompetent to teach or too disinterested to bother to take the trouble to teach competently. The other question could be about having "non-expert" (but competent) people teaching courses.

For the latter: for introductory graduate-level courses in math in the U.S., for example, some of which may be effectively "required" regardless of students' professed interests, there might be some reason to avoid the "expert-blindness" (or sheer jadedness) of most-expert faculty as instructors. At best, this can certainly get out of cliched ruts.

Regarding the question of incompetent instructors... At least in mathematics, it is not so easy to get a PhD while being completely ignorant of basic graduate-level math outside one's "specialty", in the first place. Second, an experienced mathematician should be able to get a grip on basic graduate-level math even if they've not seen it recently, or maybe never. Specifically, some of the "practice" of being a mathematician is learning to cope with new things effectively. Yes, some exertion might be required... so that the only sure way to be incompetent with relatively basic things is by not caring enough to exert oneself. This is always a possibility.

But, to repeat, at least in mathematics, it is simply not the case that a seasoned professional is innately unable to teach some mathematics even if it's unfamiliar... Rather, I'd think that only sufficient disinterest so as to allocate essentially zero time-and-effort would give a truly bad outcome.

1

A big drawback I haven't seen mentioned here is that students use courses to find faculty advisers. If you have other professors teaching the probability courses but the student never has a probabilist as a professor, it can make it harder to meet the appropriate faculty. For undergraduates, this may mean that they won't take courses in their field of future research with the faculty who they are doing their honors projects with, which in turn may weaken a letter of recommendation. For graduate students in large departments, many students will take certain courses just to meet the faculty in the area to find an advisor which is harder if the professor rotations are more random.

Also, while most professors can teach a course outside their expertise, it can limit what students learn. For the best students, learning what's in the textbook is not enough: becoming prepared for research is what matters. These students may be asking a professors questions like "can this proof generalize to the case where ..." which, with the right faculty, is the start of a research project. Or, in open-ended projects like in many graduate courses, an advanced student may finish the project and start adding new ideas, which the right faculty use as a lead in to a new lab member and research project.

There's also a large drawback in fast-moving fields. For graduate/upper division courses in things like computational biology, if you're using a textbook you're years behind. Some subjects need to be taught from the latest research articles.

There is a big upside though: sometimes faculty can be awesome researchers and horrible teachers. Or even more likely, great researchers but not good at teaching students who aren't interested in going the extra mile and doing research. Some people just don't teach lower/middle division undergraduate courses well since half of the problem in these courses is motivating the students. In these cases, it can be good for a department to give this job to people who are good at teaching younger students even if the subject is not in their area of expertise. Of course, the strongest students in the course (those who will become majors) will recognize this issue due to the problems mentioned above, but for the larger courses you do have to cater to the crowd.

Lastly, something mentioned by other commenters, is that sometimes a course just needs to be taught. Maybe there's a new subfield that undergraduates are requesting an upper division course in, but the department hasn't adapted yet. A faculty member who is looking to pick up this expertise may start by teaching a course on the subject. Not everything is a con in that situation, since the faculty member will likely be using books and other materials that are easier to comprehend than someone "more established" in the area.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.