Robert Trivers, an evolutionary biologist, sociobiologist and professor of anthropology and biological sciences at Rutgers University, was suspended from the school for admitting to his students that he was unfamiliar with the subject of their course. Trivers, whose expertise is in social evolution, sexual selection and reciprocal altruism, was instead assigned to teach a course on human aggression by the university. The case has brought to light the controversial issue of teaching requirements for research professors, who are often asked to instruct outside their specialty. This also been noted to happen at the University of Michigan, at the expense of the student experience. However, allowing students to access researchers in their field of study is invaluable to their education. The University must ensure that professors are comfortable with what they’re asked to teach, and must explore other instructing options when they aren’t.
Trivers explained to The Chronicle of Higher Education that he told his “Human Aggression” students in the first lecture he knew little about the subject and would be learning the material along with them. He also recruited the help of the previous instructor of the course, Professor Amy Jacobson, to give a few lectures. Shortly thereafter, Rutgers suspended Trivers with pay for refusing to teach the course and “inappropriately involving students in the dispute.” Rutgers is currently moving to suspend the esteemed professor without pay.
While it’s important that universities support the research being done on their campuses, the quality of education that the students receive must be of equal concern. It’s indisputable that the University holds its research faculty in high esteem. However, an excellent researcher oftentimes doesn’t make an excellent instructor. The skills needed for teaching are immensely different from those needed for research.
When a case such as Trivers’ arises, hiring an outside lecturer rather than forcing an unwilling professor to provide mediocre quality of instruction is a viable alternative. In fact, that practice is becoming more common with some studies supporting the notion that students learn more when taught by an outside instructor as opposed to a tenured professor. Specifically, the National Bureau of Economic Research found that Northwestern University students taught by untenured professors were more likely to take a second course in that subject and earn a higher grade than students whose first course was taught by a tenured professor. The University should consider hiring outside instructors instead of asking researchers to teach courses they aren’t comfortable with.
It’s also important to consider what support and training for new teachers the University provides. The Center for Research on Learning and Training offers a teacher orientation program and several teaching seminars for professors who are not accustomed to classroom instruction students. However, there are few requirements regarding which programs and how many programs an instructor must participate in. The University — along with being sensitive about which courses it assigns to professors — should mandate that professors attend some of these seminars. While supporting researchers, the University must also ensure that students are receiving the best possible quality of instruction.