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Lovaye Kajiura who teaches biology to first year students at McMaster University in Hamilton, talks with incoming students at an orientation workshop on Aug. 29, 2013. (GLENN LOWSON FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Lovaye Kajiura who teaches biology to first year students at McMaster University in Hamilton, talks with incoming students at an orientation workshop on Aug. 29, 2013. (GLENN LOWSON FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

For a new kind of professor, teaching comes first Add to ...

When York University begins advertising to hire new professors this fall, the job descriptions will have an important distinction: The new hires will focus on teaching, and will not be required to do research like their colleagues.

York’s plan to bring in about 200 such faculty over several years is one of the most expansive of the initiatives at Canadian universities over the past several years to introduce a new breed of faculty member – the teaching-focused professor. Under growing pressure to improve teaching quality, due in no small part to constrained funding and swelling class sizes, more than a dozen schools of all sizes across Canada, with some notable exceptions, have gradually created a permanent teaching stream.

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Professors have long been expected to spend about 40 per cent of their time teaching, 40 per cent on research, and the rest doing committee or community work. Teaching-stream professors spend up to 80 per cent of their time teaching, with little, if any, research obligation.

Many faculty associations say a teaching stream erodes the identity of the university teacher and creates a harmful class system among colleagues. But for students, the promise is clear: Teaching-focused faculty can be more attentive, and share best practices with colleagues.

“There can be greater flexibility in how we distribute the workload, so that it really plays to people’s strengths,” said Rhonda Lenton, York’s provost. “And that has to be good for everybody.”

In bargaining for a new collective agreement with faculty last summer, York’s top administrators pushed for the right to create teaching-stream jobs, up to a limit. It was time, Dr. Lenton said, given widespread scrutiny of university teaching and “an interest that York had … to address the increasing reliance on [contract-based instructors].”

Studies in the United States show teaching is the primary task for at least 70 per cent of faculty, while most research is concentrated in leading universities, including the Ivy Leagues. It is a difficult comparison, as the vastly larger U.S. postsecondary system draws a distinction between university and college-style teaching, but what is clear is that more U.S. students learn from teaching-focused professors.

In Canada, where the distribution between instruction and research is more even, the idea of teaching-focused faculty requires a shift in the way professors are viewed and evaluated. For years, it has sparked animated debates in academic circles, and associations of professors regularly oppose it.

“When you’re also a researcher, you’re a different kind of teacher. You’re bringing something else to the classroom,” said Jim Turk, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers. “It’s what distinguishes a university. … Otherwise, it really is no different than a high school.”

The trend toward teaching-focused jobs is most evident in larger universities, such as the University of Toronto, which has 320, as many smaller schools already stake their reputations on teaching. In part, teaching-stream faculty are seen as a way to reduce costs: they typically earn comparable pay, benefits and tenure, but can teach more students.

“There’s been an increasing emphasis, particularly in the research-intensive universities, in addressing the balance between teaching and research … really ensuring that all members of faculty are effective teachers,” said David Wilkinson, provost at McMaster University, which has hired 50 teaching-stream professors – about 7 per cent of its faculty – over the past six years.

That is forcing changes in the way schools assess professors. Promotion and tenure committees have focused on research output, which is readily measurable. But more elusive indicators must be used for teaching-stream faculty, such as student evaluations, teaching portfolios and classroom critiques by peers.

Lovaye Kajiura, a teaching-stream professor in biology at McMaster University, officially spends 80 per cent of her time teaching, but is encouraged to explore pedagogy and new teaching methods such as online learning.

“We do research in teaching … so we can improve upon how we deliver the material to the students, so that they’re engaged and motivated to follow that field,” she said.

At most schools, the number of teaching-stream jobs is limited, but most who have taken the role tend to prefer it: 75 per cent would stay put if offered a traditional position, according to a 2011 study by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario.

In 2009, computer scientist Alex Brodsky moved from the University of Winnipeg to Dalhousie University to take a teaching-stream role. It was a rare move for a professor, effectively ending his research efforts, but he was feeling the strain of academia’s “publish-or-perish” culture. Given the choice, he would not go back. “I knew that I would be personally more productive if I did focus more on teaching,” he said.

But faculty at the University of Ottawa are not persuaded. Last week, they rejected a university proposal to make 10 per cent of professorial jobs teaching focused by 2020. Christian Rouillard, president of the university’s faculty association, echoed Mr. Turk’s fears, and worried a teaching stream would create “Balkanization” among professors. In 2008, faculty at the University of Windsor turned down a similar proposal.

Students are similarly divided. While everyone wants high-quality teaching, “it’s also important for students to become good producers of knowledge, not just consumers of knowledge,” said Jessica McCormick, national chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students, and that comes from contact with professors who do research.

But Isabelle Duchaine, a student at Queen’s University with experience in student government, thinks her peers notice the “tension” of professors balancing two roles, and many would welcome more latitude for those wishing to concentrate on teaching.

“When you ask students during course selection, what are you looking for in a class, most people say, what’s the professor like?” Ms. Duchaine said.

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