Am I Not A Professor?

The following is the lightly-edited text of a speech I gave to the Cornell Faculty Senate on May 10, 2023.

Photo credit: A 2018 Cornell article written by my own college in which I am titled “Dr” but my co-instructor is titled “Professor”.

My name is Michael Clarkson. I am a Senior Lecturer in the department of Computer Science, and a Steven H. Weiss Provost’s Teaching Fellow. I have been on the Lecturer track here at Cornell since 2014. In that almost decade of teaching experience, I have taught over 6000 students. Most of them call me “Professor Clarkson.” Last month, I won the “Professor of the Year” award in the College of Engineering for the second time. Yet “Professor” is not my job title.

Do titles matter? At some level, they should not. The work we faculty do — the intellectual impact we have on the world — is far more important than how we sign letters.

But the words we use for one another do matter. They speak to the worth we ascribe to members of our community.

I know that the Senate has had conversations recently about the community of RTE [Research–Teaching–Extension] faculty at Cornell. So I offer the following remarks in the hope of continuing that conversation today, and into the next academic year.

The fundamental problem with the title “Lecturer”, I believe, is that it does not reflect the intellectual contributions made by many teaching-track faculty here at Cornell — contributions to their unit, to the university, and to the world. These faculty develop innovative course content, often at the foundational levels of the discipline. These faculty are on the front lines of identifying and implementing improved pedagogy in their own courses and even throughout a curriculum. These faculty make internationally visible contributions through textbooks, publicly released teaching materials, and leadership in teaching societies.

Despite those intellectual contributions, and others, by our teaching-track faculty, we continue to use the historical title of “Lecturer” for them. Unfortunately, in our US academic culture, that has negative effects. It hinders recruitment, for if an outstanding teaching-focused candidate can take a job with the title “Professor”, why would they not? Indeed, this a real (not hypothetical) problem for recruitment in my discipline.

Another negative effect is that the “Lecturer” title increasingly creates disparity with the titles now in use at Cornell.

  • A faculty member who devotes their career primarily to research and fund-raising can be titled “Research Professor”.
  • A faculty member who devotes a substantial part of their career to industry, then pivots to teaching, can be titled “Professor of Practice”.
  • But a faculty member who devotes their entire career to teaching is not titled “Professor”.

A third negative effect is that the “Lecturer” title can suggest to students, parents, and donors that courses are not being taught by “real” faculty. That’s a shame, because teaching-track faculty have the freedom and responsibility to devote their full efforts to the best possible educational experience for their students.

In response to these negative effects of the “Lecturer” title, and no doubt others, there is another title in use at other universities. The typical form of this title is “Teaching Professor”, in the standard ranks of Assistant, Associate, and Full.

Let me be clear: a “Teaching Professor” title should not be a substitute for, nor erosion of, the standard tenure-track “Professor” title. Cornell will always need tenure-track professors who engage in world-class research. That is one of our core values. Introducing “Research Professor” and “Professor of Practice” titles did not change those values. Nor should a “Teaching Professor” title. Rather:

  • “Teaching Professor” honors the intellectual contributions made by teaching-track faculty.
  • “Teaching Professor” conveys a commitment to undergraduate education, since that is the curriculum level at which most teaching-track faculty serve.
  • “Teaching Professor” demonstrates respect for these faculty who devote their entire careers to teaching.
  • “Teaching Professor” encourages collegiality within departments by reducing the othering of teaching-track faculty w.r.t. tenure-track faculty. It also encourages protection by the administration by exposing the parallel nature that policies for these various classes of faculty should exhibit.

And last but not least, the move to create “Teaching Professor” titles is part of a national trend. I sampled 20 universities similar to Cornell. [Sample was presented to the Senate.] Nine out of the 20 have a Teaching Professor title.

But peer pressure should not the driving force behind our conversations. Rather, I ask that you — as Senators — listen to faculty within your units, and reflect together on whether the current state of teaching-track titles at Cornell best meets our values as a faculty, and our intentions of remaining a world-class university.

Meanwhile, I am working with former Dean of Faculty Charlie van Loan to advance these ideas. We look forward to continuing the discussion next year as appropriate with the RTE task force, the relevant Senate committees, the Dean of Faculty, and the Colleges. We hope there will develop interest to draft a Senate resolution recommending the introduction of a three-rank track titled Teaching Professor.