Teach While You're at It

When professors talk about finding time to do "my own work," why do they always mean research?

Andrew Kuznetsov / Creative Commons

January 05, 2015

Not long before the winter break, I ran into a colleague from another department at the cafeteria coffee station. We spoke about the break to come, and he said, "I can’t wait to get some of my own work done."

That phrase—"my own work"—has bugged me for my entire career. It’s always used to distinguish research from teaching, but how does teaching not qualify as "my own work"?

Other workplaces, like the military, seem to value teaching more than academe does. People generally don’t think of the armed forces in that way, but that’s because most of us recall the caricatures of military training, like the vividly foul-mouthed drill sergeant in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. I recently interviewed Samuel Grafton, a Marine helicopter pilot, who said in an email that it’s a "common misconception that the military teaches by yelling and corrects by punishment." That’s just in basic training. The rest of the time, Grafton says, military instructors "take their time, explain the reasons why things are the way they are, and give their students every chance to succeed."

Grafton, an experienced teacher of pilots, describes a staged educational process that begins with memorization (helicopter pilots "memorize the diagrams of force vectors on rotor blades" and "learn the schematics and operation of the engine, transmission, and flight controls"). Then comes practice and practical evaluation, with "feedback and techniques to do each maneuver correctly," and "multiple attempts to improve." Only then do helicopter pilots graduate to "tactics and mission planning."

Successful pilots then have to make the transition to become teachers. "The senior guys know how to do the job," Grafton notes, "but they have to let the junior guys learn by doing to prepare the next generation to take over."

We see that passing of the baton in other professions as well—and it can be a difficult move. Grafton said he noticed the same transition in medicine when he was reading Atul Gawande’s 2008 book, Better: A Surgeon’s Notes On Performance. In the book, Gawande describes a paradox of medicine: A surgeon learns to perform a complicated procedure and then must, upon mastering it, stop performing it and teach it to others instead.

A union lawyer I know speaks of how she must constantly train her constituents. There’s only one of her, she explained, but if she trains her members to become advocates, negotiators, organizers, and (sometimes) activists for their own cause, more work gets done. So she teaches all the time.

The notion of skillful pilots starting as students and graduating to teaching sounds a lot like graduate school. Colleges and universities are places of teaching and learning, and graduate school is the place where apprentices transform themselves from students into teachers.

But the similarity gums up at that point. In the Marine Corps, teaching is a respected part of an officer’s job, a badge of honor. Lots of professors don’t see teaching that way. And why should they? Their most substantial rewards come from other quarters.

Most graduate students approach teaching with a lot of enthusiasm. I remember that in my early years of graduate school, I could hardly wait to run a class of my own. I embraced teaching eagerly, pursued a lot of training (which I would not have received otherwise), and threw myself into the craft. By the time I graduated, I was proud to be doing some teacher training myself. When I went on the job market, one of my recommenders asked me how he should describe me in his letter. I thought for a while and said, "teacher-scholar."

Six years later, I described myself on my tenure application as a "scholar-teacher." I’d like to say that I deplored the inversion of priorities, but honestly, I can’t say that I did. The immersive tenure process reversed the ordering I had defended in graduate school. I experienced no particular moment of conversion, but I realized after a while that I had accepted my induction into research culture.

Not that I quit the teaching culture—I’m still a committed member of that group. But my university most values the research I do. And why shouldn’t it? Faculty publication enables a university to stay competitive in the national rankings.

All graduate students get their training at universities whose faculty members prioritize scholarship. They’re called research universities for a reason, after all. So all graduate students choose their first role models from among the committed researchers around them. Many dissertation advisers are great teachers, but their students see the primacy of publication very clearly. Thus do we socialize graduate students to disrespect the teaching that they begin with such enthusiasm.

There’s a historical reason that research crowds teaching out of the picture. Look at this graph. It resulted when I searched a data set of millions of books for entries in which "research" and "professor" appeared together. It’s a striking result, even a scary one. You can see that a slow rise in the frequency of the phrase begins with the formation of many research universities in the 1890s, but the line slopes sharply upward starting around the 1940s.

That uptick coincides with the Cold War, which transformed academia for both better and worse. The Cold War created a tense atmosphere of intervention and paranoia in academe, with loyalty oaths, hearings, and the dismissal of more tenured professors than at any time since academic tenure became a feature of the academic landscape. At the same time, though, the tensions of that era contributed to the growth of higher education to its present scale—and especially to the burgeoning of research.

Richard C. Lewontin offers a good account of the change in "The Cold War and the Transformation of the Academy," an article in the 1997 edited volume The Cold War & the University. Briefly, here’s what happened. The exponential growth of research in our time was essentially a Cold War bargain: The university became the research and development lab for the Defense Department, and indeed, for the whole country. The government started funding all kinds of academic research, with special emphasis on the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, mathematics). Professors in those fields were given extra money to do research and, in order to accomplish the work, they were allowed to teach less. To prevent intramural rivalries and tensions—and also because research culture had always encompassed all fields—other disciplines were given the same deal: Teach less, and publish more.

You can see from the graph I linked to that the change was inexorable. Government investment in the university changed our value system within a generation. Both professors and universities are typically measured according to what is sometimes called "knowledge creation." It’s also called "productivity." And it’s always called "publication." You could also call it academe’s version of the arms race.

The system is pretty top-heavy now, and its lack of proportion warps a lot of lives—including those of graduate students. John Guillory, an English professor at New York University who studies the workings of academe, has observed in "How Scholars Read" that professors are so busy writing books now that they literally don’t have the time to read them.

It’s even worse for graduate students. They have that problem, certainly, and another one that’s worse: The buyer’s market for professorships allows employers to demand skills in both research and teaching. So graduate students have to train to be scholars to please their departments, and they train to be teachers to please their potential employers. In other words, graduate students have to be everything to everybody. No wonder time-to-degree is so high.

This is a box we all occupy together. Even though the Cold War has been over for a generation, we are who we are today because of it. "Professor" and "researcher" are substantially overlapping identities, and that fact drives the training of graduate students. Teaching loses because it doesn’t count in the competition.

Actually, we all lose. Because when graduate students buy into a system that subordinates teaching to research, the priorities we teach them will affect every student they will ever teach.

Leonard Cassuto, a professor of English at Fordham University, writes regularly about graduate education in this space. He welcomes comments, suggestions, and stories at His Twitter handle is: @Lcassuto.