NEW YORK — Why did Larry Summers get forced out of the Harvard presidency? There were many reasons, starting with Mr. Summers's impolitic remarks about women's ability in the sciences. He also annoyed the faculty by suggesting that they teach more introductory-level classes, not just narrow courses about their research specialities.
But as Mr. Summers must have known, mere exhortation will never change university teaching. Although we all give lip service to classroom instruction, there's simply no reward in it. Teaching doesn't advance your career.
In fact, it holds you back. As Penn State University scholar James Fairweather has shown, professors who spend more time on instruction-related activities make lower salaries. The more time you devote to research, meanwhile, the more money you earn. These numbers hold constant across different types of institutions, from so-called "Research-One" universities to liberal arts colleges.
And don't think teaching will help you win tenure, either. Indeed, young professors are often warned that a strong commitment to the classroom might actually hurt their chances for promotion. "If you excel at teaching, someone will undoubtedly think you're putting too much into your teaching and you should be doing research," one respondent told University of Southern California scholars William Tierney and Estela Bensimon, who have written about faculty evaluation. Privately, then, many faculty admit to neglecting their instruction. "I could be better," one young professor confessed, "but if I spent my time improving, I wouldn't get tenure."
Sure, we collect student evaluations and occasionally observe one another in the classroom. But nobody believes that these "measures" measure anything. A poor score on a student survey usually means you're a lousy instructor, but even the worst teachers can sometimes garner decent marks by going easy on the kids after midterms. And faculty almost always give each other rave reviews.
"It's screwy," one professor confided to Tierney and Bensimon. "We're working as if this is Lake Woebegone - all the faculty are above average." Indeed, 90 percent of American college professors say they're better-than-average teachers. They can't all be right.
How did we arrive at this strange state of affairs? The story begins about a century ago, with the creation of the modern American research university. Modeled largely after German universities, where many leading American educators had studied, these new institutions privileged original scholarship over teaching. "It is to the discoverers, in far greater measure than the transmitters, that the world is under obligation," declared a professor of Latin at the University of Chicago in 1902.
Some proponents stressed the social utility of new knowledge, which would help the United States improve health, housing, transportation, and more. Others celebrated scholarship for its own sake, not for any practical application. "Remember the research ideal, to keep it holy!" intoned another Chicago professor, echoing the sacred Jewish injunction about the Sabbath.
But to attract students - and to pay the bills - scholars were still required to teach. Some professors happily accepted this duty; more often than not, however, they downplayed or ignored it. Asked what he would do with the undergraduates who had gathered in his laboratory for instruction, one Johns Hopkins University professor quipped, "I shall neglect them."
He was joking, of course, but only in part. And the joke will continue until we devise new ways to evaluate and reward teaching. As my New York University colleague Ken Bain has written, all professors should have to "construct an argument" for their teaching - just as they do for their scholarship. This argument would explain the objectives of their courses, the classroom strategies they use, the ways they measure student learning, and so on. Like any good argument, it would draw from evidence gathered during the course: syllabi, tests, and student comments.
Second, tenure committees need to make such evaluations matter. In my 15 years as a professor, I've met many good teachers who were denied tenure for lack of scholarship. But I've never encountered a good scholar who didn't get tenure because he or she couldn't teach.
Over the past hundred years, universities have devised intricate peer-review systems to judge scholarship. Yet we still don't have a serious method to judge - or to reward - our work in the classroom. And until that changes, nobody will be able to improve college teaching. Not even the president of Harvard.
• Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. He is the author of "Innocents Abroad: American Teachers in the American Century," forthcoming.