Evolving faculty views on teaching, publishing, technology

Against the backdrop of an evolving public health crisis and altered political landscape in recent years, no one will be surprised that faculty members at American colleges and universities have changed some of their day-to-day tasks and views related to research, teaching and publishing. Many of these views are shared in a report published today by Ithaka S+R that last year took the temperature of 7,615 faculty members at four-year colleges and universities offering bachelor’s degrees or higher.

The pandemic put a dent in faculty members’ ability to gather at conferences and workshops but not their enthusiasm for doing so. Two-thirds of faculty members rated such attendance as “highly important” for staying current on scholarly literature. In contrast, only about half of respondents deemed “regularly skimming table of contents alerts of key journals” as “highly important.” The rise of virtual conferences and workshops during the pandemic made conference attendance easier and cheaper. This, the study authors suggest, accounts for the minimal decrease in their perceived value from the 2015 and 2018 surveys.

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

“I think we’re all better than [overemphasizing impact factor],” said Ulrica Wilson, a math professor at Morehouse College. In promotion discussions, Wilson pushes back on an overreliance on journal impact factors. For her research, she considers whether the journal is the right fit and whether it reaches the audience she seeks—factors that align with the highest-rated priorities of the survey respondents.

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

To be sure, 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 hard to select journals based on elements such as whether the journal is paywalled, whether the readership extends to practitioners and whether the journal and its editorial board cover an inclusive range of perspectives,” an assistant professor in political science who asked to remain anonymous told Inside Higher Ed. “Promotions often depend more simply on having publications in ‘top’ journals, a category that represents a fairly narrow set of field-specific, high-impact publications.”

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

A majority of faculty members (88 percent) are interested in lowering the cost of course materials for their students—a percentage that was consistent with earlier surveys. To achieve this goal, professors 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 one-third (38 percent) used open video lectures and approximately one-quarter (26 percent) used open course materials—a noticeable increase across all categories from earlier Ithaka S+R surveys.

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

“Those of us who love mathematics,” Edgar said, “we sort of want everyone to love mathematics the way that we do.” He enjoys the creative outlet, is learning a programming language and has found that his creations foster engagement with others beyond his classroom.

Despite bright spots, faculty members have felt increasingly squeezed by a decrease in 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) approximately one-third of faculty (32 percent) reported having received external funding, compared with half (50 percent) of faculty in 2015.

Melissa Blankstein, lead author of the study, is eager to get the survey into the hands of faculty members, administrators and librarians—either to help start or to supplement strategy and decision-making conversations with data.

“There is definitely more room for faculty support,” Blankstein said. The survey, she said, offers clues into “exactly what kinds of support they may be more interested in.”

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