Field of Science

Feds to College Students: "We don't want your professors to know how to teach"

The National Science Foundation just changed the rules for their 3-year graduate fellowships: no teaching is allowed. Ostensibly, this is to ensure that fellows are spending their time doing research. This is different from the National Defense Science & Engineering graduate fellowship Vow of Poverty: you can teach as much as you want, so long as you don't earn money from it.*

Consider that, ideally, PhD programs take 5 years, and the final year is spent on (a) writing the dissertation, and (b) applying for jobs. This means that NSF graduate fellows may have as little as one year in which to get some teaching experience.

Presumably, NSF was thinking one of three things:

1) They're trying to make it harder for their fellows to get jobs at universities that care about teaching.
2) They honestly don't believe teaching experience is important.
3) They weren't thinking at all.

I'm curious what will happen at universities that require all students to teach, regardless of whether they have outside fellowships or not. Will they change that rule, or will they forbid students to have NSF fellowships. Given the current financial situation, I'm guessing they'll go with the former, but it's hard to say.

*The exact NDSEG rule is that your total income for any year should be no more than $5,000 in addition to the fellowship itself. Depending on the university, this can be less than what one would get paid for teaching a single class.


Anonymous said...

In the NSF's defense, teaching for a few years doesn't necessarily cause a graduate student to learn how to teach well.

Psi Wavefunction said...

Yeah, but not teaching for a few years pretty much GUARANTEES the grad student never learns how to teach well...

This is ridiculous. The higher ups in academia seem to be doing everything within their power to stop well-rounded researchers (ie, those involved in dealing with people from time to time). I should probably stop emphasising my outreach (blogging) and course development experience on every form I get my hands on. That coupled with my arcane research topic far from any fad basically guarantees I'll never get a faculty position in the end, ever. Thanks, NSF.

Anonymous said...

6/7 years is obviously much more typical, with 5 being the minimum. So, NSF recipients can get 2 or more years experience. How much more does one need? I don't think TAing for 4 years makes one a better teacher than 2...

GamesWithWords said...

@Anonymous II: Typical depends on what program you're in at what university. In my department, 5 is standard. There are probably as many people who finish in 4 as finish in 7 (though I don't have current numbers to back this up -- but 7 is in any case pretty rare).

More to the point, my (again limited) experience is that people who have NSF fellowships usually finish in 4 or 5 years. This is almost necessarily so: to get an NSF fellowship, you had to have been a pretty promising candidate (and thus likely to finish quickly), and also the support of the NSF fellowship means that it's easier to graduate quickly.

Bob Carpenter said...

I'm guessing it's to sweeten the deal for the student. It's rather draining trying to teach and be a grad student.

Oddly, NSF doesn't cover full tuition through their fellowships, only a 10.5 kilobuck "cost of education allowance". That's a fair bit lower than the cost of most research university's tuition, even if you go to a state school and are in state. So they ask the universities to comp the students the rest.

Departments often like to extract work from their students in the form of TA-ing. Some departments take teaching seriously, but it's usually just a way of offloading grading papers and helping students who are lost. This is in no way helpful to a student who is going to get hired based almost entirely on research. For instance, when I applied in the linguistics department at Ohio State (gosh, over 20 years ago), the dean at the time told me they evaluated faculty for promotion weighting research 90%, teaching 5% and service 5%, emphasizing that teaching or service might in some rare occassions be a deciding factor, but don't count on it. When I was a professor at Carnegie Mellon, no one took teaching seriously -- I was constantly encouraged to spend less time teaching and more time doing research.

GamesWithWords said...

@Bob: I realize that research universities don't take teaching seriously. But the federal government usually pays at least lip service to the idea.

I'm not sure why they'd need to "sweeten the deal," as having an outside fellowship pretty much always means a higher stipend and less teaching. I would understand them capping the amount of teaching. But forbidding it seems extreme.