annals of academic life: teaching and research

The Tomorrow’s Professor blog has an interesting, if fairly obvious, article claiming that by emphasizing research productivity major universities compromise their teaching mission. The reason is that contemporary research (the author claims) is so esoteric as to be all but irrelevant to classroom issues, and that “pedagogical experts” are better at teaching than are actively-producing scholars. While I think there’s some merit in the concerns, I worry about a few things (after the break):

  1. The concept of teaching “effectiveness” rubs me very much the wrong way. Participation in the university–by students as well as others–ought to be an intellectual experience, not a consumer-driven one.  If you want effective teaching divorced from intellectual discovery, go to some technical school! The experience a serious university offers ought to be one of intellectual rigor: hard to engage in, demanding active involvement, and in dialogue with the cutting edge of the field. Part of the “price” of this “product” is the hard work of being taught by active scholars whose primary expertise is in the content, not the form.
  2. The author’s contention that the primary reason why research universities prioritize research is because they need massive external research funding to function strikes me as hollow. First, it doesn’t apply to disciplines that garner little external research funding (e.g., the humanities and humanistically-oriented social sciences), where research is also highly prized. Second, institutions that prioritize teaching more tend to run fine without massive external research funding (think, e.g., about community colleges and many liberal-arts colleges). The massive external funding is necessary largely to underwrite the research mission of the university: the libraries, electronic resources, graduate programs, laboratories, and so on.
  3. The article claims that chancellors and presidents “routinely” claim that teaching is their first priority, but I don’t actually think that’s so. Our chancellor–and, by the way, the chancellor of the author’s university too–make a much more sophisticated set of claims about the relationship to scientific progress, discovery, economic development, education, innovation, and more. While I think this expanded set of justifications for universities remains inadequate (largely because it tends to ignore the humanities and humanistic social sciences), I think the best university leaders promote the multiple complementary missions that characterize the contemporary “multiversity.”

I like to think of this in terms of an old-fashioned Germanic system: the faculty are the engines of intellectual productivity and discovery; the students come to study with them not because they’re awesome teachers in the standard sense (if I see one more evaluation praising one of our faculty as “very entertaining” I may puke) but because they are scholars, and this is the student’s first opportunity to participate in the life of the mind.

Author: andrewperrin

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

2 thoughts on “annals of academic life: teaching and research”

  1. I’m with you on the wish to avoid dumbing down scholarship for purely consumerist, entertainment appeal. However, in some forms the kind of system you praise can be very elitist in what I would consider a bad way–I think it’s important to keep courses rigorous but also be conscious of the diversity of the student body and whether or not they are able to understand what you’re saying. For example, bandying about a lot of French or German expressions in lectures can leave well intentioned but less sophisticated students lost because they don’t know these terms (while students with a more elite education may), nor do they know enough about the languages to be able to look them up later. Thought given to making scholarship accessible is not time wasted if it improves the human capital of the next generation of scholars.

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  2. I also think that this debate misses a dimension. Either research and teaching are distinct, or good researchers can give the latest best knowledge to students, or teaching distracts from research. But there’s another possibility. It could be that research is aided by teaching. That being in the classroom makes our research better — by having to answer obvious but unasked questions, stating ideas clearly, and driving teachers toward relevant, resonant topics. All I’m saying is that the zero sum formulation of some of these debates can miss the productive impacts of teaching.

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