Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach

By Leslie Henderson (Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth)

Attributed to George Bernard Shaw, the ability to codify the value and the impact of great teaching (or program development) in academia has been about as easy as catching a greased pig at the state fair.  Even in institutions that pay homage to teaching as foundational to their mission, it is often not much more than lip service when it actually comes to hiring and promotion and tenure (P&T) processes.

The conundrum is easy to understand:  Conventional teaching assessments rely heavily on student feedback, which, whether through metrics or narrative comments, is often fraught with bias.  It is even more difficult to assess teaching when done in “engaged” settings, not in the classroom (e.g., for medical schools, in association with patient care).  Neither teaching nor program development is often seen or evaluated by external peers.  Despite all of the flaws in journal impact factors or modified total direct costs attributed to a PI or mPI, there is comfort committees (whether P&T or search) take in those “analytics” as being less “fuzzy,” more rigorous, and made by external experts.

With respect to promotions, the Geisel School of Medicine has undertaken a number of steps to be able to assess the impact and significance (not in the statistical sense) of a faculty member’s work.

First, we recognize contributions in “engagement” as defined by Boyer, as an important fourth pillar, joining teaching, research, and scholarship.  Our colleague Lisa Schwartz, who died this year, was recognized by the New York Times for having “trained hundreds of journalists to become more skeptical about claimed scientific breakthroughs and miracle cures” through her public outreach with her husband and academic partner, Steve Woloshin—activity that had a far greater effect than any “high impact” publication. Our P&T committee looks at OpEd pieces, white papers, and testimony to private, state, or federal policy-making bodies as critical components of academic advancement.

Second, we more fully expanded our promotion criteria to recognize faculty members for the design, development, and implementation of programs that have a substantive, measurable, and multiplicative or even exponential impact on education and (in the case of clinicians, on clinical practice). In the parlance of geneticists, where the impact may be measurable not only on those they directly instruct (F1 generation), but also in subsequent generations of learners (F2 generations and beyond).  They must provide evidence that goals and missions have been met for any given program, but the ability of a faculty member/department to define those goals/missions (e.g., to increase the number of medical students who opt for practicing family medicine in rural/underserved areas or increase the recruitment/retention of a more diverse faculty in their department) has led to a much broader recognition (and advancement) of our meritorious faculty members.

Third, we explicitly ask faculty members to highlight in their own words those accomplishments that best define their contributions to the academic mission in their personal statement:  to convey the significance and impact of their work as would be viewed by others, especially those who are informed, but not experts in their specific field. The focused instructions asking faculty to point out why what they do matters has been extraordinarily valuable in informing P&T committee members as to how different aspects of a faculty member’s professional activities are intertwined and to the overall impact/significance of those activities.

Those that teach, do do.  We believe our evolving criteria are now capturing those critical contributions more readily, and this had led to better recognition and advancement for those that may not always hew to the more conventional assessment metrics.