Friday, May 26, 2006

What makes a good professor?

Earlier this week, the Wall Street Journal reviewed a new book by Harry Lewis, a former dean at Harvard, called "Excellence Without a Soul." I haven't read the book yet, but I plan to. I like Harry, and he always struck me a thoughtful dean whose heart was in the right place. (I say that as a person who often has a more jaded view of university administrators.)

This particular passage in the WSJ review caught my eye:

Most professors are "narrowly educated experts" with little experience outside academia. They are "poorly equipped to help college students sort out" their lives.
Of course, that is true. And it is true for a simple reason: We select professors based on narrow expertise.

Whenever we hire econ professors at Harvard, for instance, the first question we ask about job candidates concerns their research. We scrutinize their vitas to see how many papers they have published in the AER, QJE, and other scholarly journals. These publications typically reflect narrow expertise.

We also discuss other things, such as teaching ability. But about 90 percent of the weight in hiring goes to research, only about 10 percent to teaching. Not once have I heard anyone ask, "How well equipped is this candidate to help college students sort out their lives?" If I ever posed such a question in a faculty meeting, my colleagues would think I was joking.

This phenomenon is not unique to Harvard. Here is some generic advice from economist Dan Hamermesh (University of Texas at Austin) to young scholars:
Unless you are at a liberal arts college that stresses teaching, don't over-prepare your classes. The marginal product of additional preparation time diminishes rapidly; and most schools do not take teaching into account unless you fall below some standard. The loss function here is asymmetric.
That is probably correct advice for a junior faculty member aiming for tenure. But aspiring to be merely adequate does not strike me as socially optimal.

I am open to the idea that we should take a broader view in promotion and hiring than we do. I would increase the weight given to teaching relative to research. I would give some weight to life experiences outside of academia, such as working in policy jobs, writing op-eds, writing books for nonspecialists, and so on. But my perspective is a minority view in my department and, I believe, in research universities more generally.