The Tenure Path

Teacher-Scholar fig1

The 40-40-20 Teacher-Scholar model

The Teacher-Scholar model

Academic jobs are both cutting edge and have a medieval guild structure; they allow for significant freedom and demand every breath you take; they are very competitive and difficult to come by, yet they pay less than what industries outside academia offer for similar years of education and experience. Academic jobs still carry prestige and a perception of privilege, but while perception persists, both prestige and privilege are increasingly living only in the eye of the beholder.

Tenure track positions are affected by pragmatic concerns such as salary, difficulty to choose where to live, or family and partner’s mobility. They depend on the type of institution: research-1, for example, emphasize more that aspect, while research-2, master-granting, and liberal art colleges embolden a matching weight for teaching and research. Another aspect that can affect the tenure process is department politics, especially when fractures and opposing factions undermine a supportive work environment.

In these posts I am not going to reflect on any of these aspects, but rather on the core of what constitutes the tenure path under the 40-40-20 «Teacher-Scholar» model and its mentoring relationship with students. (Although percentages may vary within and across institutions, the most common  40-40-20 stands for the percentage weight given to teaching, research and service respectively.)

Teaching in a liberal arts institution

Teacher-Scholar is the preferred model of liberal arts education. It is characteristic of great-books systems and liberal arts colleges in the United States. Research-1 universities appreciate and encourage liberal arts education in their undergraduate programs, but do not enforce the teacher-scholar model both because a significant part of their teaching is carried out by graduate students, and also because research carries more weight.

The concept of college liberal arts education does not exist in France or Latin America. It does not exist either in graduate programs in the United States. One could argue that some of its principles are implemented in K-12 in those countries and that college is a time for specialization. Students are often exhausted after their baccalaureat (the terminal exam students take before college) and their license (college), specially if they took the competitive route of the Grandes Écoles, to have any steam left for college. Lack of R&D funding and support is another moving piece in that equation. It also has been argued that a relentless drive for specialization and transnational competitiveness is pushing these systems away form their humanistic and liberal arts core too. Critical voices across the Atlantic call for more attention on core competences such as reading and math, with global intercultural competence a distant third in the list. The approach presented is to offer less of an education and more of curriculum development and training.

In the United States liberal arts education makes sense for a number of reasons. For example, as education programs vary across states, North Carolina students are required to invest two to three years studying the history of the state, while their Latin American or European counterparts may be covering in those same years Great civilizations such as Egypt, Greece, China, Japan, Persia, India, the Abrahamic Triad (Jewish, Muslim; Christian), Mesoamerica, European Renaissance and colonialism,  the Industrial Revolution and the World Wars. It is thus not uncommon to find freshman students in the U.S. with sketchy knowledge and awareness of the world beyond their immediate entourage, and what mass-media decides to present.

Liberal arts education aims at providing students with a well rounded education. In it, a student becomes gradually more aware of himself and others, more flexible and also better equipped to approach life problems from a more academically critical and less judgmental perspective. Engineering, business or health majors for example have to take classes in humanities, literatures, fine arts, social sciences, math and natural sciences and cultural diversity

Liberal arts education is under criticism from public administrators who want to harvest short-term gains in productivity or in resource-allocation efficiency. The arguments against Liberal Arts education emphasize the need for early specialization, reducing time spent in college, and expensive tuition, and expedite professional readiness to become part of the workforce.

The critics of liberal arts education are often both the product of a liberal arts education, and have opted for it when deciding which education to give their offspring. Advocating for one type of education for others and a different one for one’s own family raises questions. For example, liberal arts education has been criticized of elitism, and of not being for everyone. Some states have supported a variety of technical and community 2-year programs instead. Liberal arts education also has been also linked to the crisis of the humanities, suggesting it has done too little to make students employable, and that more emphasis ought to be put on training and less on education. The NYT debate on the subject is telling.

Liberal Arts education makes some difference in entry-level jobs; a very small difference in mid-level jobs; and a very significant difference in high-end executive and international jobs as well as for entrepreneurs. The observed gap in how much a liberal arts education matters in the professional world is disappearing with globalization, and new communication technologies: while liberal arts education and intercultural communication used to a nice addition to a well rounded leader in society,  they are ever more a matter of survival.

Lastly, a liberal arts education not only it better prepares a person to function efficiently and appropriately in an increasingly multicultural and globalized environment, it also very significantly improves the ability of that person to enjoy life and be happier.

I would not settle for anything less for my off-spring. Would you?

Teacher-Scholar fig2

The components of teaching


A simple search in the Educational Resource Information Center (ERIC) for “effective teaching” in the title or abstract yields 12,294  results. The number of scholarly articles, books and other types of publications on effective and efficient teaching is large. Reviewing such a vast material can be daunting and requires at some point to commit to one or a few distinctive approaches.

Research argues that it is fairer to evaluate teachers on their teaching rather than on their student learning because of the many factors that may affect how much a student learns during a semester. However, it also  recognizes that student evaluations differ by subject (students taking a class in their major will rate teachers higher than if the class is introductory or falls outside of their concentration), that end-of-the semester evaluations capture more outliers  while combined mid-semester and end-of -the semester evaluations show normal distributions.

There are many definitions and interpretations of “effective teaching” and students and teachers/administrators understand “student efficiency” somehow differently (Layne, 2012). When asked to list in order of importance the three most important abilities, students, teachers, and administrators agreed on the same three — cultivate thinking skills, stimulate interest in the subject, and motivate students to learn — but not in the same order. When asked to compare effective and infective teachers the top three words student used where interesting, approachable, and clarity. To describe teachers  nominated for teaching awards they used often: approachable, presents material well, makes subject interesting, helpful, and knowledgeable. However, as Kenneth Feldman has pointed out, faculty placed more importance in being intellectually challenging, motivating students, setting high standards, and encouraging self-initiated learning (Fieldman, 1988, Layne, 2012).

An effective teacher cultivates thinking skills, shows why the subject is relevant, motivates students to learn, and is approachable and clear. An effective teacher makes learning visible to students and proceeds with caution in applying innovative approaches that may come back to bite him or her in student evaluations, specially if he or she is a junior faculty member. Younger students used to lectures, teacher-centered and structured environments react negatively to the apparently messy interaction of a reversed classroom and may perceive that the feeling of unstructured and ambiguous interaction of group work is reflective of the course structure itself. As William Perry (1997) pointed out, freshmen may be less flexible and tolerant to the uncertainty implied in a reverse-classroom setting, and to the work and engagement it requires from them.

However, most research-based reflections (as opposed to survey-studies) seem to coincide in that the most effective course design is student-centered, integrates multidimensional goals –cognitive, affective and behavioral—, and uses both intellectual and experiential learning processes. Education does not end until the student learns, and teachers have to meet students where they are. Classes are to be constructed from clear student goals, be consistently coherent in the selection of assignments and readings, make learning apparent, and strive for clarity in expectations and in how student performance is evaluated. Setting students for success implies a balance between clear and strictly enforced rules, connecting the dots on why the material or task is relevant, and giving students enough fair opportunities to succeed.


  • Divita, D. “Towards a Practice of Reflexivity” Berkeley Language Center Newsletter, Fall 2006, 7-8.
  • Nilson, Linda B. Teaching at its best: A research-based resource for college instructors. Wiley, 2010.
  • Perry Jr., William. “Cognitive and Ethical Growth: The Making of Meaning.” College student development and academic life : psychological, intellectual, social, and moral issues. Ed. Karen Arnold and Ilda Carreiro King. reprint, illustrated ed. New York: Taylor & Francis, 1997.
  • Pirie, M, and R.M Worcester. The millennial generation. London: Adam Smith Institute, 1998.
  • Layne, L. “Defining effective teaching.” Journal on Excellence in College Teaching. 23 (1), 2012, 43-68.


Research is a complex process

Research is a complex process



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