Public Recognition: An Undervalued Incentive for Teaching

In October, I was fortunate enough to attend a meeting for the AAU's STEM Education Initiative in St. Louis.  We talked about a number of issues, including some of the efforts by universities to improve teaching at the institutional level.  Often, though, the conversation turned to the subject of teaching incentives.  If we want to create meaningful, sustainable change with respect to teaching, many argued, then we need to rethink the ways in which teaching is valued and incentivized*.  Attendees were primarily interested in what the AAU could do in terms of advancing arguments in favor of incentives, but this seems to be a conversation that happens on many of our campuses at one time or another.

Rightly, to my mind, the two incentives most frequently discussed at the meeting were 1) strengthening the role of teaching in the promotion and tenure process, and 2) money, both in terms of individual compensation and also funding for programmatic and curricular innovation.  These two kinds of incentives are so important because they are significant enough in scope to be engines for culture change regarding teaching.  Though slow to enact, such incentives can have long-lasting impact.

While centers for teaching and learning (CTLs) can often (and should!) be a part of the conversation when institutions begin to think about the viability of and then--hopefully--enact such incentives, CTLs by themselves cannot singlehandedly bring them to fruition.  Although these incentives are the most substantial, they are not the only kinds of acknowledgments for teaching, and I think CTLs can actually play a major role in developing other incentives, particularly when it comes to public recognition for outstanding teaching.

Recognition is an underrated incentive.  It's not always lucrative, but it can call attention to teaching in ways that highlight both the value of the instructor and the strengths of an institution.  Most campuses have internal teaching awards, for example, but I am thinking about two kinds of recognition that extend beyond the walls of the university.  The first of these focuses on nominations for external teaching awards at the national level, and CTLs can be drivers of initiatives to increase numbers of nominations.

For instance, here at Rice's Center for Teaching Excellence, we seek out nominees for these kinds of external awards and then offer administrative support to those whom the university's Committee on Teaching have approved as nominees.  Winning is one goal, of course, but it is not the only goal.  As one example of this, we are ecstatic to have recently learned that Mikki Hebl, Professor of Psychology, has won the Robert Foster Cherry Award for Great Teaching--a national award housed at Baylor University.  We at the CTE made the official nomination, worked with Mikki on her portfolio, and served as a resource for her letter writers.  Such a win has shined a spotlight on the fantastic teaching at Rice, but I would argue that nominations alone can serve a similar purpose by exposing colleagues from other institutions to the excellent work happening at our universities.  Also, being honored by folks on campus and beyond through these nominations is powerful reinforcement for faculty who too often may wonder if anyone notices the amazing things going on in their classrooms.

A second incentive for which CTLs can play a significant part is in cultivating a strong relationship with our university's public affairs/news/communication office.  Staff in those areas of campus have a lot of ground to cover.  They are tasked with reporting on student achievements, research, athletics, and so much more.  Because of this, they may not always be aware of the latest teaching innovations on our campuses.  CTLs can help by reaching out and communicating   I try, for instance, to let my contacts in public affairs know when we are hosting a major event that they may want to cover, when someone has received an award for teaching from their disciplinary society, or when I learn about a creative approach to teaching that is making an impact on our students.  Coverage like this can go further, in some cases, than any single award, because it describes for community members the actual details.  Rather than simply stating that someone is a good teacher, articles explain why the person is so good.  This matters in ways that may not often seem immediately apparent.  Finally, the writers in these offices have contacts with national publications and provide some of these teaching stories to those outlets.

These are just a few ideas as to how we might increase public recognition for teaching at our institutions.  What are some other ways in which CTLs might help with this?


*The word "incentivized" is an example of corporate verbing of which I am not very fond, but it enjoys wide use among policy makers, so there you have it.

Posted on January 20, 2016 .