How “professional baggage” may be a key barrier in changing how we teach

A little while ago, a colleague in the UK sent me this article (via twitter, of course!):  Barriers to Faculty Pedagogical Change: Lack of Training, Time, Incentives, and…Tensions with Professional Identity?” by Brownell and Tanner.  He knew I’d be interested – I’m always experimenting with my own teaching, but I’m also aware that I’m in the minority.

The article starts by making an excellent argument that we KNOW how to improve teaching at Universities, but little change takes place regardless.  Brownell and Tanner make the argument that barriers to Professors wanting to improve their teaching are often related to lack of training, lack of time, or lack of incentives.  This fits with my impression of Academia, especially at a research-intensive University such as McGill.  When I arrived over 10 years ago, I had little training as a teacher (other than a couple of short workshops), I had little time to devote to teaching improvement (I was barely ever one lecture ahead of the students!), and I was mostly encouraged to concentrate on developing my research program.  There were not a lot of incentives to foster, improve, or change my teaching approach.  I don’t blame anyone for this, nor am I bitter about my experience.  It was the norm, and perhaps still is for most tenure-track Professors at a University with a significant research focus.  So, as I began reading Bronwell and Tanner’s paper, it resonated, and I agreed that training, time and incentives were key barriers to changing pedagogy.

Brownell and Tanner, however, ask a clever question: if we imagined those three barriers gone, would we see immediate improvements in teaching?  Would Professors suddenly value pedagogy and teaching improvement differently, and find ways to change their approach to the classroom?  Perhaps not – and this is where the article gets interesting.

The article focuses on “Professional Identity” as being a key barrier to improved teaching, but one that is often understudied and underappreciated.  They define professional identity to be the following: “how they [scientists] view themselves and their work in the context of their disciplines and how they accrue status among their professional colleagues as academic scientists”.  In other words, it’s the process related to the way that we become an expert in our discipline – the culture, the context, and the training we receive.  It’s the intangible as well as the tangible things that become our professional baggage.  Brownell and Tanner argue that, for many scientists, we learn early in our careers to value research over teaching, and there is (for the most part) a greater emphasis placed on developing our research profile.  There is often time and incentives to do some teaching (e.g., Teaching Assistantships are paid, and have hours associated with them), and there is training available (McGill’s SKILLSETS programs are a fine example).  Regardless, the culture of science is mostly related to research and we are ultimately judged on research production rather than teaching.  My personal experience supports this idea, and I have found myself often discussing this with my graduate students – I sometimes have advised them to avoid extra teaching responsibilities if it is going to slow down their research productivity.

Brownell and Tanner go into a lot of detail about the tensions between the development of professional identities and participating in pedagogical change.  They make a very strong case: among several lines of arguments, they illustrate that scientists are often afraid to change their teaching approach for fear that it may be frowned upon by their peers, or that their teaching evaluations might suffer (and, in in the short term, this may be true).  They also argue that the scientific culture, at large, places a lower value on teaching than on research, and it’s hard to overcome this.

The article finishes with some ideas for change: “we need to find ways to challenge the assumption that a scientist’s professional identity should be primarily research-focused and consider ways in which teaching could become more integrated into the fabric of the discipline“.  The authors suggest 1) graduate student and post-doctoral training goals need to be broadened, 2) scientific journals should include/value papers and research related to education, 3) scientific conferences should better integrate education into the (typical) research focus.  These are intriguing, thought-provoking, and interesting ideas.  But are they enough to shed some of our professional baggage?  I’m a bit skeptical, but I do agree that some pretty fundamental paradigm shifts are required if we want to shake up the system, and see Professors placing higher value on teaching improvement.


Brownell, S.E. & K.D. Tanner 2012. Barriers to Faculty Pedagogical Change: Lack of Training, Time, Incentives, and…Tensions with Professional Identity? CBE – Life Sciences Education. 11: 339-346  doi: 10.1187/cbe.12-09-0163


7 thoughts on “How “professional baggage” may be a key barrier in changing how we teach

  1. I have always thought that if I had to spend a lot of time teaching, I would like to be successful at it. I have tried various things some of which worked and some of which didn’t. I think a fair number of places have become concerned about retention; having more students actually graduate. So there is some emphasis on improving teaching. One colleague we hired about 15 years ago had had a teaching post doc. I see students as part of my legacy, perhaps more important than publications or grants I have had.

  2. A couple more comments. At some time in the distant past, my department started including teaching experience as a necessary component for any hire.

    One easy thing to do: I had a general education class that I did not enjoy. I fell into the habit of showing up a couple of minutes late. I was surprised to be roundly criticized for it in the student evaluations. About that time I read of the idea that showing up five minutes early was a good thing to do. Just sort of hang out, do a little preparation, etc. I took it up and felt that it made a real difference in class atmosphere.

  3. I think this is a very important discussion to have within the academia framework – it also leads into the problems that we see today where graduate students are often not taught/fostered in skills beyond research and TT positions. Even in the best situations (i.e. no sequestering in the south and cuts to university in the north), its not feasible for each PhD to eventually have a job as a prof (TT or otherwise) – so its imperative that during their grad studies students learn a skill set appropriate for their career path.

    Yet for those that *do* want to continue on to be a prof there is often little emphasis or even encouragement to hone their teaching skills. TAships are ubiquitous and a good start – but in no way prepare you for teaching a real course. I actively sought out to teach a course during my PhD despite the respectful yet strong opposition from my mentoring team. I was told several times that it would be ‘far better to get another publication’ than spend 3 months teaching. But it wasn’t just for the experience that I wanted to do it (which was great and improved my presenting skills by leaps and bounds – it was like giving a talk at a conference 3 times a week!) – I also wanted to test myself whether I would actually *enjoy* being a professor – a career path I had dedicated the last 6 years of my life.

    Did this push back my research productivity, yes. Might it cost me post-doc scholarships or job possibilities due to one less paper – maybe. Do I still want to be a prof? More than ever. I discovered I love teaching as much as I love research and I’m determined to find a career in which I can do both. I still dream that my work as a conservation biologist will make a difference in this world… but if not maybe a student of mine one day will.

  4. Thanks, Barbara, for the insightful comments – they resonate strongly, and your thoughts are probably aligned with many of your peers. So, a ‘culture shift’ is surely req’d, so that mentors / supervisors help enable students who wish to improve their teaching skills.

  5. To be fair my group of mentors were simply being honest with what would get me further for jobs and postdoc opportunities, and looking out for my best interest. But it was *very* difficult to tell them that despite their opposition I was choosing to teach the course. I felt like I had to be twice as productive to make up for the ‘wasted’ time. Absolutely no regrets though. I’m a firm believe in: Those who CAN do, also teach.

  6. I loved this post and am excited to read the paper. What I think you’ve captured beautifully is the importance of culture change in addition to problems of skills transfer and bandwidth. This is true in teaching, and true in science communication, outreach, and engagement more broadly.

    I am excited to read the Brownell & Tanner paper. For those interested in digging deeper, I’ve found the term ‘epistemic frame’ to be really powerful in getting into that literature. It’s the idea that our communities have a shared culture of:
    Skills: the things we do
    Knowledge: our shared understandings
    Identity: how members of the community see ourselves
    Values: the beliefs we collectively hold
    Epistemology: how we make decisions and justify our choices

    To achieve culture change, we have to think of all those dimensions.

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