In 1964, members of the American Political Science Association, asked to rank the top 10 attributes for advancement in an academic career, placed research output at No 1 and teaching ability at No 10. Fast forward 50 years and perceptions remain the same: teaching remains the poorer cousin. Yet, the core mission of universities is to teach students. If we fail to recognize, reward and retain good teachers, we fail as an institution. Fortunately, many universities today appreciate this reality and are rethinking the teaching-research dynamic. Researchers at Chicago Law School, for example, have recently provided empirical evidence showing “a positive correlation between teaching and research prowess” (Tom Ginsburg & Thomas J Miles, “The Teaching/Research Tradeoff in Law: Data from the Right Tail” (Coase-Sandor Institute for Law & Economics Working Paper No. 674, 2014 at 29).
A recent discussion paper on how teaching is recognized and rewarded in leading research-intensive universities (G Aitken & J Tatebe, U21 Recognition of Teaching Excellence Discussion Paper (November 2014) makes for encouraging reading. The authors identify several positive developments, and raise some important questions for discussion, including the need for research-intensive universities to signal that teaching is valued; the relevance of teaching excellence to promotion and career development; and the significance of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL).
It is important, however, to keep these questions distinct as they have different purposes. If they become enmeshed, there is a danger that recognition of good teaching for the purpose of promotion and tenure will be based on SoTL output, which would be the easy option as scholarly output can be measured. But this simply brings us back to the root problem, which is that excellence can only be measured by scholarly output: thus, research always trumps teaching. Perhaps, it is not the teaching-research nexus but the ranking-research nexus that needs to be under the microscope. Are we addressing the symptoms rather than the cause?
We are fortunate that NUS – a research-intensive university – is committed to excellent teaching and to ensuring good teachers are recognized. A visible manifestation of this is the NUS Teaching Academy, established in 2009 with a vision to pursue excellence in educational innovation, and to foster a balanced culture of educational and research excellence. The Academy is made up of NUS faculty who have distinguished themselves in teaching and who have an ongoing commitment to improving educational standards at NUS. At present, the Academy has around 40 Academy Fellows who meet monthly to share ideas, discuss particular topics of interest and manage a range of research and policy initiatives. I find the collegiality in these meetings, attended by Fellows from various disciplines across NUS, an enriching experience in itself.
The Academy will continue to assist NUS to adopt best practices in teaching and learning; to advocate for excellence in education to be properly evaluated, recognized and rewarded; and to emerge as an influential Asian voice on SoTL. We hope to explore new paradigms for tertiary education while challenging conventional practice and unhealthy external pressures. In realizing our ambition, the Academy, as always, will work closely with the Centre for the Development of Teaching and Learning as well as the Provost’s Office, both of which have been extremely supportive over the years. As we move forward, the Academy will have a more focused approach to its activities and will align its strategic direction, research agenda and programmes.
I am honoured to have been elected as Chair of the NUS Teaching Academy and would like to thank the previous Chair, Associate Professor Johan Geertsema for his excellent work, as well as my colleagues on the Executive Council for supporting me in my transition into the role of Chair. I look forward to working with the Executive Council, Academy Fellows and the broader NUS community in taking the Academy’s vision forward. I invite all of you to join us in this enterprise.
Professor Kumaralingam Amirthalingam
Chair, NUS Teaching Academy