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The Lecturing Life

By shouldering a sizable teaching load, lecturers have become an indispensable part of chemistry departments

by Sophie L. Rovner
March 9, 2009 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 87, Issue 10

Showing the way
Credit: Chiaki Fujiwara/Brandeis
Pontrello explains NMR splitting patterns for hydrogen atoms to his Brandeis students.
Credit: Chiaki Fujiwara/Brandeis
Pontrello explains NMR splitting patterns for hydrogen atoms to his Brandeis students.

ACADEMIC CHEMISTRY departments gain luster when faculty bring in the money and do great research that gets published in brand-name journals. Yet great teaching, although often lower in profile, is just as important. And what could be more important than the foundation chemistry courses that undergraduates take, whether those students are majoring in chemistry or the liberal arts?

It’s in this crucible that an unsung category of educators—lecturers—often show their mettle by designing, coordinating, and teaching the lecture and lab courses that attract flocks of freshmen and sophomores. Without these professional instructors, who often have Ph.D.s in chemistry but don’t receive tenure, many chemistry departments wouldn’t have enough faculty members to teach all of their classes. Furthermore, lecturers lighten the teaching load for tenured and tenure-track professors, who can then spend more time applying for grants and conducting research. And because their primary focus is teaching, lecturers are more likely than other faculty to introduce innovation to the classroom and the lab.

Although it is too early to tell, the current economic climate might boost demand for lecturers. Irving R. Epstein, chemistry professor and department chair at Brandeis University, in Waltham, Mass., senses “there is a temptation to hire more lecturers because, in terms of undergraduate teaching, one gets more bang for the buck. Typically, the teaching loads are roughly a factor of two higher for lecturers than for research faculty.”

The economics of academe, however, is anything but straightforward. “Universities see science faculty as sources of income,” notes Logan S. McCarty, an assistant dean of undergraduate education at Harvard University. “A successful science faculty member who is doing research can bring in a substantial amount of money in terms of grant overhead that goes to the university, whereas the lecturer is pure cost to them. So, even though the faculty member’s salary will be higher, it may be economically better to have the researcher.” Harvard lecturers earn about $50,000, or roughly two-thirds of the starting salary for research professors, who bring millions of dollars of grant money to the university.

The chemistry department at Wake Forest University, in Winston-Salem, N.C., is home to two lecturers and 16 tenured and tenure-track faculty, and the university doesn’t regard the use of lecturers as “a cost-cutting or compromise model,” says Christa L. Colyer, associate professor and department chair. “The hiring process is just as rigorous and just as serious” as it is for tenure-track faculty, she says. “We really see it as filling out the team, complementing each other’s roles in the department. I think it has been good for our tenure-track professors to have teaching specialists they can go to within their own department.”

Furthermore, Wake Forest’s administration views lecturers as a good way to smoothly cover for professors who concentrate on research or administrative tasks for a time or who go on leave, Colyer says. The lecturers provide continuity and enable the department to avoid yearly searches for temporary replacement faculty.

"There's a pervasive sense among lecturers and preceptors that they are second-class citizens within the university."

BUT NOT ALL schools prize continuity. Full-time chemistry lecturers at Harvard can only stay for three years, McCarty says. He believes the university wants lecturers to “see this as a temporary stop on some bigger career trajectory,” such as a teaching-intensive, tenure-track job at a liberal arts college.

Harvard’s chemistry department, which has 25 regular faculty and four lecturers, wouldn’t use lecturers if it had a choice, McCarty believes. “But the reality is that they don’t always have enough faculty to teach all the courses that need to be taught,” he says.

At the University of Texas, Tyler, lecturers teach most of the lower level chemistry classes. “This allows the tenured and tenure-track faculty more time to concentrate on teaching upper level chemistry classes and on their research and scholarly activities,” says Donald L. McClaugherty, professor and chair of chemistry at the university.

One of UT Tyler’s two lecturers, Christina M. Ragain, will be leaving at the end of the term, and the department is searching for a replacement. There’s also an opening for an assistant professor. Some candidates are applying for both positions, but McClaugherty believes “they’re two different kinds of educators,” with lecturers focused on teaching and tenure-track faculty focused on both teaching and research.

Often, the path to a lecturer position is indirect. For instance, after earning a B.S. in chemistry in 2004 at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, Ragain went to Yale University for a doctorate but chose to leave with an M.S. instead. Since then, she has spent three years as a lecturer at UT Tyler but has now decided to return to graduate school. “I have had the opportunity to design several chemistry courses, start a chemistry outreach program, and develop science education modules,” Ragain explains. “In the process I realized that I wanted to be involved in research, as well as teaching, and I need to earn my doctorate.”

Albert B. Rives earned a B.S. in chemistry at Wake Forest in 1976 and a Ph.D. in physical chemistry at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in 1981. After working at Union Carbide in South Charleston, W.Va., for a half dozen years, he joined the chemistry faculty at UNC Greensboro so he and his wife could be closer to their aging parents. He later returned to industry, but another company bought the firm and shut down his project. Then Rives ran into one of his former Wake Forest chemistry professors, who told him the department was looking for someone to help out in the physical chemistry lab that fall. Rives joined the department and is now a senior lecturer.

Although Jason K. Pontrello has worked at several different schools in just a few years, he has had a clear sense of his direction since he earned a Ph.D. in chemistry at UW Madison in 2005. He first took a one-year position as a lecturer at the State University of New York’s College at Oneonta, then moved to SUNY’s Cortland campus as an assistant professor so he could be closer to family. He also taught as a lecturer at Cornell University and then joined the Brandeis faculty as a lecturer in 2008. In all this time his goal has been to incorporate the interdisciplinary nature of current scientific research into the undergraduate organic chemistry curriculum.

After getting a Ph.D. at Harvard in 2006, McCarty passed up the tenure track. One of the main reasons was that the “pressure to get grant money is incredibly strong, and the available grant funding is pathetic,” he says. Instead, he signed on as a chemistry department preceptor—which is similar to a lectureship, although the distinction is often vague—and moved into his current administrative position in 2007.

As an assistant dean, McCarty handles several duties in Harvard’s office of undergraduate education, including budget oversight and the appointment of teaching assistants and fellows. As part of the job, he is also encouraged to serve as a lecturer. This semester, he’s teaching organic chemistry in Harvard’s night school and coteaching a class in the physics department.

At Brandeis, which has three lecturers and 17 tenured and tenure-track faculty, lecturers typically teach two courses per semester, or twice the load that research faculty carry. Lecturers also serve on departmental committees and may do some student advising. And they are expected to publish in education or research journals, although to a lesser extent than research faculty.

Public outreach
Credit: Rudy Martinez
Ragain helps Sam Vidal, a summer science camp student, with a physics module.
Credit: Rudy Martinez
Ragain helps Sam Vidal, a summer science camp student, with a physics module.

BRANDEIS LECTURERS are mostly used in large undergraduate lab courses. “It’s difficult for someone to run a research group and deal with not only the pedagogical but also the managerial aspects of running a large course,” Epstein says. “The course runs better if it’s taught by someone whose sole responsibility is teaching.” When tenure-track or tenured faculty taught the courses, he explains, “they tended to keep the same experiments year after year because they didn’t have time to look around for new ones. Now we have some creativity in the teaching.”

Pontrello, who is teaching an organic chemistry class and lab this semester, relishes the opportunity. He engages students by discussing current research that isn’t yet in textbooks. In the lab portion of the course, he has introduced a project for chemistry students to synthesize novel compounds that biology students then evaluate for interactions with the protein that causes Huntington’s disease.

Brandeis lecturers are hired initially under one-year contracts. Once they’ve been with the department for a while, they work under a three-year contract. When promoted to associate professor, they have five-year contracts.

UT Tyler lecturers receive annual appointments and are evaluated on the basis of their teaching and service to the university and community through committees and other activities, McClaugherty says. Lecturers teach four classes per semester, and tenured and tenure-track faculty teach three classes per semester and carry out research.

Ragain designs and teaches primarily lower level courses, typically the introductory chemistry class for nonscience majors. She decides what to cover in the course and even wrote the lab manual. She also oversees the labs, teaching a couple sections herself and supervising the part-time adjunct faculty who teach the other sections.

Wake Forest lecturers teach three courses per semester, while regular faculty teach two. This semester, Rives is teaching an analytical chemistry class and two associated labs. In this role he’s made some changes in the types of experiments used in the general chemistry lab. His aims are to clarify concepts that students aren’t grasping well and to build interest in the labs by using consumer products. For instance, he developed a titration experiment to compare changes in manganese oxidation states in fresh versus used batteries.

Inside information
Credit: Tommy Murphy/Wake Forest University
Colyer (right), Rives, and undergraduate Jenny Nesbitt examine a spectrophotometer during instrumental analysis lab.
Credit: Tommy Murphy/Wake Forest University
Colyer (right), Rives, and undergraduate Jenny Nesbitt examine a spectrophotometer during instrumental analysis lab.

In Wake Forest’s chemistry department, lecturers “play the same role in almost all respects as our regular tenured and tenure-track faculty,” Colyer says. Lecturers participate in departmental and university service. They’re offered the same opportunities for professional development as regular faculty. Lecturers also advise lower division undergraduates. In some cases, they advise upper division undergraduates or supervise undergrads who are conducting chemical education research.

EACH YEAR, lecturers at Wake Forest are evaluated on teaching and service accomplishments. Although they aren’t officially evaluated on research, Colyer says, “the reality is that research is intrinsic to what our lecturers do. To be a very engaged teacher, you need to learn about teaching and how students learn, so they are very engaged in chemical education research.”

Rives, for instance, is developing instructional methods that tap better into the way students learn. Recently, he’s been studying the correlation between learning styles and the effectiveness of different orders of presentation of general chemistry topics.

Wake Forest lecturers sign a three-year contract that is “indefinitely renewable, provided enrollment and finances warrant the position,” Colyer says. Certainly, there’s no sign of a lack of demand.

In fact, the sheer volume of students is just one of the challenges that lecturers—and their departmental colleagues—face. Finding enough time to meet students’ needs can be difficult, Brandeis’ Pontrello admits. “I’m usually the first person that a student comes to if they have a question,” he says. “So I don’t get a lot of planning for lectures done while I’m on campus. I spend a fair amount of time working on things from home.”

At the same time, Pontrello and other lecturers say interaction with students is one of the most rewarding parts of the job. “I get a big kick out of the students,” Rives says. He also enjoys spending his time “learning the topics thoroughly to present in class or in lab,” he says.

Lecturers also appreciate the collegial atmosphere. Ragain says the UT Tyler department is “like a family.”

At Harvard, McCarty has found that tenured and tenure-track faculty are “respectful and work with me in a very collegial way. I don’t sense a real divide.” But, he says, “there’s a pervasive sense among lecturers and preceptors that they are second-class citizens within the university. What helps to mitigate that is that students, for the most part, seem to be unaware of these distinctions.”


Still, McCarty says, “every day there are little reminders that you’re not one of the tenure-track faculty.” For example, he can attend faculty meetings but can’t vote. And he has set hours when he’s supposed to be in the office, whereas tenure-track faculty have much more freedom in setting their schedules. “If I didn’t want to deal with that, I would take a job somewhere else,” McCarty says. “But I’m here because I love the students, and I love the faculty colleagues and teaching assistants and teaching fellows that I get to work with.”

At Wake Forest, “I’d like to say that there isn’t a gap” between lecturers and regular faculty, “but that would be naïve,” Colyer concedes. “But I think the gap, or perception of difference, is relatively small. Our lecturers are faculty in every sense of the word. All of our lecturers and professors serve on our regular standing committees, they all advise students, they all attend faculty meetings and retreats, and they all vote on curricular issues.”

Nevertheless, “the reality is there will always be hierarchies,” she says. “Research is more glamorous. It’s kind of sexy to announce, from the university’s perspective, how many dollars you brought in, as opposed to how many students you inspired. I’m not suggesting that’s more important, but it’s just easier to quantify research, and therefore it can be more easily recognized, and so that might be perceived as a difference in worth.”

Even so, Rives says he has found that, “when I’m coordinating a lab, my service is valued, in that what I do makes life easier for the faculty members who are overseeing specific sections of the lab.” He senses that they appreciate “that all the details I worry about are taken care of, and so they treat me nicely.”

At UT Tyler, “there’s not a huge distinction” made between lecturers and other faculty, Ragain says. “We’re not treated as second-class citizens. We’re treated as part of a team. To the extent that I want to be involved in department decisions, I’m pretty much allowed to give input.”

UT Tyler’s lecturers “are just as important as our tenured and tenure-track faculty,” McClaugherty says. “They just have different responsibilities. Our lecturers are hired to teach primarily lower level classes. If our freshmen and sophomores don’t get a solid background in general chemistry, then they don’t have the foundation to succeed in upper level classes.”

Furthermore, lecturers’ teaching of nonscience majors affects the students’ perception of science, McClaugherty says. Students often ponder, “Is it fun? Is it interesting? Is it important? Or hey, I hate it. It’s something I can’t understand and don’t want to know about,” he says. That places a huge responsibility on lecturers’ shoulders.


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