The Beginnings and Ends of Tenure

PBS NewsHour recently featured a segment called “Colleges and Universities See Graying Workforce Holding On to Coveted Positions” about tenured professors keeping their positions into their 70’s and 80’s (see the video below). Two primary concerns arise:

  1. Mentally and physically we decline with age, which may have implications on how well we can perform teaching and research duties. On the contrary, these seasoned professors also gain value in their extra experience.
  2. By holding onto positions beyond typical retirement age, it restricts the availability of tenure-track positions for younger, recent Ph.D.’s. PBS gives an example of an English Ph.D. who has not been able to secure a full-time, tenure-track job in seven years and has to resort to multiple part-time instructor positions.

Some schools are strategically offering retirement preparation for professors. In these cases, professors are “eased” into retirement often with financial and lifestyle mentoring, lessened course loads, and opportunities such as keeping professor emeritus/emerita status. While I don’t believe a strict, forced retirement age is a practical solution, the topic raises more questions about tenure in higher education.

Professors who have held their positions for decades have valuable experience that should not be taken for granted. However, challenges may also arise in keeping them up-to-date with evolving pedagogy, methods, technology, and ways to connect to students from generations more and more distant from their own. On the other hand, inexperienced professors should be more familiar with contemporary practices and pedagogy and with the younger generation. However, I have also heard nothing but horror stories about the first few years of a tenure-track position. Making the leap from freshly-minted Ph.D. to tenured professor is trying.

I wonder if schools could do a better job at scaffolding the learning process of becoming an effective, tenured professor by pairing retiring professors with their replacements. The younger, inexperienced professors could learn from the retiring professor’s experience while gradually taking over more of their responsibilities. Thoughts?


Higher Education’s Preparation for Independence

During a discussion about the European Bologna Process , we learned how, generally speaking, their students take heavier course loads and are held more responsible for their own education. Consequently, lectures at European universities concentrate more just on content delivery and involve fewer graded activities while students are expected to study and practice enough to pass a final exam. In the American school system, there seems to be increasing responsibility on instructors to make their courses fun and engaging, especially as active learning pedagogy gains popularity. The differences make for an interesting contrast in roles for both students and teachers.

Meanwhile, my respected colleague and computer science (CS) professor at Virginia Tech, Dr. Eli Tilevich brought up an intriguing contrast between our undergraduate CS education and the experience of music majors. Specifically, he drew attention to the music student’s experience at a senior recital:

The student giving the recital had to deal with all the stress and unpredictability of playing a solo recital in front of a live audience […] The recitalist had to handle all these issues completely independently without any help from anyone. The student’s clarinet instructor was in the audience, but only as a passive listener. Overall, I find senior recitals an excellent avenue for music students to demonstrate their proficiency in their chosen field of study.

While the objectives in academic music education are considerably different than those in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, Dr. Tilevich addressed that CS education does not have a comparable experience of strictly independent, professional assessment:

Even in our capstone classes, in which it is recommended that students accomplish a project for an external client, professors are always present ready to step in to help students deal with any issues that may arise.

This concern particularly piqued my interest. I have embraced an active instructional role where I do my best to assist students reach class objectives. However, do tests and class assignments adequately assess how well a student can perform a real, practical skill after the class is over? That’s tough to say.

A truly professional experience could serve as a final milestone in undergraduate education. An analogy can be drawn to the apprenticeship model of learning. A demonstration of professional performance would indicate reaching the goal of scaffolding: gradually decreasing the amount of help offered as the student grows in developing independence. There are unique challenges in each discipline to implement this type of experience, but it is an intriguing prospect.

A bigger question is though, how would a practical, apprentice experience as a capstone fit into the different teacher-student dynamics? In American schools, I imagine it would be a tough transition for students to go from traditional classes to taking full responsibility to work independently and professionally. My expectation is that the transition would be more natural for students used to taking greater responsibility — either through Bologna Process-style education or through previous exposure to internships or other professional experience.

I’m curious to others’ thoughts, especially since at this point I have no first-hand experience with European schools. I am also interested to hear how others think a professional capstone would apply to their disciplines. Lastly, it also makes me wonder if active learning pedagogy is particularly susceptible to “coddling” students too much and failing to teach them responsibility and accountability.