Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The role of teaching in Higher Ed

European universities emphasize that teaching and research are equally important. 

However, you can observe that rankings are based on publication records and citation, i.e., on research.  When reading job postings for professors, requirements emphasize research.  Maybe it's mentioned that you have to teach in one of the fields of the institution.  In your CV, you emphasize research projects, acquired funding, publications, degrees, and service to the scientific community.  And then you have a list of taught courses at the end of your CV.  In your motivation letter, you write one to two pages about your achievements, leadership, and future research projects.  And the one sentence that you consider teaching an important aspect.

Evaluation of applications or grant proposals is mainly based on your publication record, acquired funding, research stays abroad, your academic age (i.e., how many years have gone by since you got your first or last degree). 

In the late 1990s, German students aiming to become a teacher had less courses on pedagogy and didactics the older the kids would be they would teach: becoming a teacher for elementary school required attending a lot more didactical courses than becoming a teacher for secondary school (Gymnasium).  And of course, no courses are required when teaching at university level.  You just know how to do it, don't you?

So, when you apply for professorship, you are judged by your research.  But substituting for a professor is about teaching exclusively, what you research is about and whether you ever published in a journal or not---no body cares about.  Sometimes, the person substituting for a professor gets paid per hour taught---not including hours spent preparing material, assessing assignments, and supervising students. See this Spiegel article (it's in German, try GoogleTranslate for a sketchy English version).  Teaching doesn't seem to be valued.

The weekly workload of German professors has been increased some years ago in some states---you have to work one hour more, like 41 hours instead of 40.  And this additional hour went completely into teaching.  So working 41 instead of 40 hours a week means teaching 9 hours instead of 8.  This additional hour of teaching is assumed to not require any preparation.  You just go and teach students.

Only recently, PhD programs started requiring attending courses on didactics and teaching.  However, dozens of years will go by before all professors will have a pedagogical education.

What's the situation like in the US?  Do you get (mandatory) pedagogical training before you start teaching?

Monday, March 18, 2013


Hi, my name is Cerstin Mahlow.  I'm a computational linguist.

From the Friedrich-Alexander University Erlangen-Nuremberg (Germany), I got a Magistra Artium (M.A.) in Computational Linguisitics, Spanish, and Political Sciences.  I studied in the final decade of the last century of the last millenium, i.e., in the pre Bologna system where you had very few regulations concerning which course to attend when.

Born in the North-East of Germany, I followed my way to the South (or to the Mediterranean) and moved to Zurich in 2001.  For some years I was a research assistant at the Department of Informatics of the University of Zurich (UZH).  Then I started a second career as e-learning consultant for the Faculty of Humanities and Arts at the UZH and later for the School of Social Work at the University of Applied Sciences Northwestern Switzerland in Olten and Basel.

However, I developed an interest in writing research---I always loved writing.  I started a project on combining computational linguistics and writing research:  How can natural language processing (NLP) methods and tools help people write more effectively and more efficiently?  I finished my PhD dissertation at the Institute of Computational Linguistics of the UZH in 2011.

Since 2010 I work at the University of Basel in the German Department as senior researcher / PostDoc in an SNSF funded project on German idioms. It's a digital humanities project.

In Summer term 2013 and Winter term 2013/2014 I will substitute for a professor in Theoretical and Computational Linguistics at the University of Konstanz.  I will teach three courses (8 hours a week) and at the moment I haven't decided yet whether I'm excited or a bit scared teaching that much---I also teach a seminar in Spring term 2013 in Basel.

From my experiences with non-technical researchers and users in e-learning, in computational linguistics, and in digital humanities, I developed some ideas on what kind of abstract thinking or even programming skills should be learned by everybody.  And probably universities are the right place to teach basic skills of programming to all students to prepare them for all kinds of future tasks.  I think this will be "my topic" in this year's GPP.  More on first ideas in a following post.

You can read more about my scientific work and interests on my website.