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Playing the numbers game in academia

Writer(s): 
Tim Stewart, Kyoto University

A convergence of three intellectual stimuli prompted me to write this essay: a plenary speech, a journal article, and a committee meeting. First, I attended an impressive plenary talk by Toru Iiyoshi (2013) at the Japan Association of College English Teachers convention on how open education tools can transform learning by promoting the development of teaching practice. After that JACET convention, I was engaged by O’Mochain’s (2013) article about the unfairness of the publication landscape in English language teaching (ELT). A few days later I reviewed applications for ELT positions.

After his plenary I asked Iiyoshi how more professors could be expected to become innovators in education when the financial and status rewards overwhelmingly flow to research and publication. He offered little hope for change to the status quo in the near term. Perhaps I am exaggerating the priority of publications situation, I thought. However, the search committee deliberations cut that reconsideration short. To gain the approval of the whole faculty, a candidate needs a great weight of paper behind him. In short, teaching expertise does not count for much. What counts heavily in the hiring process is the publication count. Japanese professors have definite expectations about how old the candidate is and how many publications they have (Miller, 2013). This is a systemic problem.

Another notch on your CV

Many Japanese institutions instruct job candidates to number the chronological list of publications on their curriculum vitae. Once these numbers are inserted they are not easy to ignore, and thus slant the review process toward quantitative evaluation. After the search committee makes its choice, it is vetted at a university faculty meeting. When evaluating a candidate from an unrelated field, professors likely rely on the candidate’s total number of publications. This is a numbers game that dominates natural and social science fields today. With such an intense focus on publication numbers, research quality can easily be overlooked. Teaching ability might barely register a mention. That is, once the data have been quantified, the numbers are often taken at face value. Copies of publications are circulated, but few professors seem to give them more than a skim. Correlating age with the total number of publications is simpler than engaging in qualitative interpretation.

The debate about quantity versus quality in academic publication isn’t new. Science published a satirical piece 50 years ago warning that the exploding competition to publish would weaken scientific knowledge (Forscher, 1963). While the realization of networked learning is starting to turn this argument on its head, the quantity-quality debate is far from over. The preoccupation with numbers is a serious obstacle to raising the status of teaching practice at universities. Research gets funded, but development of teaching practice rarely does. Since Boyer (1990) introduced the idea of the scholarship of teaching, much work has been done on how to evaluate teaching as scholarship. However, even after 20 years, systemic changes have been slow to materialize. This indicates the intractable hold of publications in academia.

To discover where power is concentrated, follow the money. In higher education, the money and the glory is in research, not the development of teaching. Global university rankings clearly favor quantifiable research performance data. The lure of research funds has elevated research above teaching and created an upper-echelon of researcher superstars. Once scholars began competing for research funds, the gap between teaching and scholarship expanded. Research became attractive as an end in itself and a chief means of promotion. Tenure committees tend to be dazzled by the number of published articles. Given this situation, young scholars see that rather than developing their pedagogy, it’s best to spend time distributing the findings of a study over several articles to maximize the quantity of their published work (Magner, 2000).

Making teaching count

O’Mochain (2013) asked why the new “predatory” journals exist. This is obviously an entrepreneurial response to the systemic pressure to publish. The administrators and faculty committees that created this monster are now blaming the victims for the problem. In addition to emphasizing publication quality over quantity, universities have to start recognizing teaching as scholarship and giving it rewards similar to research. So far, initiatives to redress the imbalance of status, recognition, and reward between research and teaching have fallen short. Faculty who dedicate themselves to teaching excellence instead of generating published manuscripts still find the ultimate symbols of recognition and reward – tenure and promotion – elusive (Chalmers, 2011). Because most academic articles go unread the numbers game is not cost-effective for universities. Students want teachers to attend to their needs as much as they do to their writing. Counting teaching as scholarly activity would open up an excellent path toward education reform.

References

Boyer, E. L. (1990). Scholarship reconsidered: Priorities of the professoriate. New York: The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

Chalmers, D. (2011). Progress and challenges to the recognition and reward of the Scholarship of Teaching in higher education. Higher Education Research & Development, 30(1), 25-38. doi: 10.1080/07294360.2011.536970

Forscher, B. K. (1963, Oct. 18). Chaos in the brickyard. Science, 142(3590). Retrieved from <health.uottawa.ca/biomech/courses/apa6908/CHAOS.HTM>

Iiyoshi, T. (2013, August). Advancing English-enabled learning and teaching with open education. Plenary speech presented at the JACET 52nd International Convention, Kyoto, Japan.

Magner, D. K. (2000). Seeking a radical change in the role of publishing. Chronicle of Higher Education, 46(41), 16-17.

Miller, R. (2013). Publishing options to enhance your CV. The Language Teacher, 37(3), 72-73.

O’Mochain, R. (2013). A response to Brown and Cook on “Unscrupulous journal solicitations.” The Language Teacher, 37(5), 67-69.

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