Evolving faculty views on teaching, publishing, technology

Amid the unfolding public health crisis and the changed political landscape in recent years, it will come as no surprise that faculty at America’s colleges and universities have changed some of their daily tasks and perspectives related to research, teaching, and publishing. Many of those views are shared in a report released today by Ithaka S+R, which last year took the temperature of 7,615 professors at four-year colleges and universities offering bachelor’s degrees or higher.

The pandemic has hampered faculty members’ ability to gather for conferences and seminars, but not their enthusiasm for doing so. Two-thirds of faculty members rated such a presence as “very important” to maintaining the scholarly literature. In contrast, only about half of respondents felt that “regularly reviewing content warnings of key journals” was “very important.” The rise of virtual conferences and seminars during the pandemic has made attending conferences easier and cheaper. This, according to the study authors, explains the minimal decrease in their perceived value from the 2015 and 2018 studies.

When submitting a research publication, faculty members were less concerned about journal impact factors in 2021 than in earlier years. Just under three-quarters (73 percent) rated the impact factor as “very important” in this recent report, compared to 79 percent in 2018 and 81 percent in 2015. Impact factors are supposed to indicate the impact or quality of research that the journal accepts for publication.

“I think we’re all better than [overemphasizing impact factor]” said Ulrika Wilson, professor of mathematics at Morehouse College. In discussions of promotion, Wilson rejects overreliance on journal impact factors. For her research, she assessed whether the magazine was relevant and whether it reached the audience it was looking for—factors that aligned with survey respondents’ highest-rated priorities.

“We have to be careful to judge where the work lives and maybe just read the damn article,” Wilson said.

Of course, journal impact factor has not disappeared as a consideration when faculty members decide where to publish research.

“Unfortunately, the incentive structure, especially for assistant professors, makes it difficult to select journals based on elements such as whether the journal is paid, whether the readership extends to practitioners, and whether the journal and its editorial board cover a comprehensive set of perspectives,” said Assistant Professor in political science, who wished to remain anonymous Inside Higher Ed. “Promotions often depend more simply on publications in ‘top’ journals, a category that represents a fairly narrow set of high-impact, field-specific publications.”

A majority of faculty members surveyed (84 percent) consider the library’s ability to provide access to scholarly materials to be “very important,” according to the report — a statistic that is consistent with surveys from 2015 and 2018. But in 2021. the majority of faculty (81 percent) also valued the library’s role in providing students with access to technology and informal academic gathering spaces. (The questions on the latter two items were new in 2021, so the survey did not provide insight into how these views have evolved.)

A majority of faculty members (88 percent) are interested in reducing the cost of course materials for their students, a percentage that is consistent with previous surveys. To achieve this goal, educators have increased their efforts to create and place educational content in the public domain. In 2021, just under half (41 percent) of faculty members used open textbooks, just over a third (38 percent) used open video lectures, and roughly a quarter (26 percent) used open course materials—notably an increase in all categories from earlier Ithaka S+R surveys.

Tom Edgar, a mathematics professor at Pacific Lutheran University, joined the open educational resources movement during the study period. He had taught visual math proofs in the past, but found that static diagrams weren’t always effective in conveying concepts to his students. Then, during the days of the pandemic lockdown, after giving up learning the mandolin, he turned to animating visual math proofs, which he now shares on YouTube.

“For those of us who love math,” Edgar said, “we kind of want everyone to love math the way we love it.” He enjoys a creative outlet, is learning a programming language, and has found that his creations encourage engagement with other people outside his classroom.

Despite the bright spots, faculty members feel increasingly squeezed by declining funding for their scholarly endeavors from public or government grant-making institutions such as the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities. In 2021, (only) roughly a third of faculty (32 percent) reported receiving external funding, compared to half (50 percent) of faculty in 2015.

Melissa Blankstein, the study’s lead author, is eager to get the survey into the hands of faculty members, administrators, and librarians—either to help get started or to add data to conversations about strategy and decision-making.

“There’s definitely more room for faculty support,” Blankstein said. The study, she said, offers clues about “exactly what kinds of support they might be more interested in.”

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