does a research focus neglect students?

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Hi everyone,

Here's a question I've been mulling over. At many universities, research is the number one criteria for tenure. Sure, your department may make noises about teaching and service, but research is what really counts at tenure time. A great researcher and a mediocre teacher will get tenure, while a great teacher and a mediocre researcher will get shown the door.

Is there an incentive not to give your best to your students because that would take time away from your research agenda?  For example, do we academics have an incentive to ignore opportunities for curriculum improvement because the beacon of research/tenure calls? I must admit the siren song of multiple choice questions is calling, not because it is a good testing tool in my field, but because that takes time away from you-know-what. I love teaching. I'd sure like to give more to my students, but I know every minute that I spend on pedagogy is a minute away from ... well, you get the idea.

Does anyone feel this tension? How do you handle it?


There is no other profession in which it is so common for those who aspire to participate have such a disdain for the actual job. I hear nothing but complaints about being required to research from prospective doctoral candidates and newly hired assistant professors. If one wishes not to do research, there are several teaching options at liberal arts colleges, community colleges, private and public school systems, etc.

So, why are people drawn to the profession in general? Simple; they are egomaniacs who want to "be able to say" they have a ph.d., are a college professor, received such and such distinction, etc. This issue is directly related to the fact that the majority of incoming humanities faculty members I am aware of are able to take their position even with it's low salary because they simply do not need employment of any kind at all (spouse works, mommy and daddy take care of them, etc.).  

In short, "being a professor" is not about idyllically strolling about a beautifully lined campus with a Starbucks espresso in hand, waiting to take the summer off from your "teaching gig." It is about the creation of knowledge, in addition to its dissemination (at least at the Research I level). Those who have a problem with this agenda do not serve themselves or anyone else by complaining about it. They have several other teaching options as mentioned above.  Anyone who attempts to gain employment at a research-based institution without any interst at all in research (usually for the acquisition of "prestige") should not receive tenure.

I've only worn the prof hat on the teaching-centered side, in part because of what I think the answer is, but I've been a student in both heavily research-centered and teaching-centered, so here's my two bits.

I've absolutely seen a difference in teaching quality between institutions. The teaching-centered (or now I guess I should be saying learner-centered?) place had more consistently-good (or at least well-intentioned) teachers. Contrast that with the Research I school. Sure, faculty taught, but many taught because they had to, they taught as little as possible, and often with as little effort as possible. Yellow lecture notes (including faculty members who shouldn't have been old enough for yellow lecture notes!), class cancellations at the drop of a hat, and generallly not much interest in the results. I did encounter a few excellent teachers at this Research I school -- they were tenured, full profs. I can't name anyone under 50 who seemed to genuinely enjoy teaching.

A Colleague:
Hello All,

A few basic points:

I went to R-I schools for my entire acadamic career and I loved my professors. The idea that the only real place to find caring, engaged professors would be the liberal arts college setting is an absolute fallacy.  

I also had smaller classes in my undergraduate R-I than those I have taught as professor at a fancy, expensive liberal arts institution.

Different students have different needs at different times based on different circumstances. It is interesting to teach at a liberal arts institution (although I expect that this will not be the end of the road for me), but I see students who should be at a good small school (and are in the right place) and I see others who would be a lot happier in a big school. One size does not fit all ...

One thing that I will never, ever get used to at the liberal arts level is how there are quite a few colleagues who piously express how they are "all about the teaching," but when it comes to contributing to their field or keeping at least current, they are too busy doing service projects for the campus that do little more than promote sociability.  My question: how can you really be a good teacher if you are not keeping current and being a part of the larger landscape of your field?

Research does not preclude good teaching. In fact, I think it enhances great teaching.

A Colleague

A Colleague poses the question, "how can you really be a good teacher if you are not keeping current and being a part of the larger landscape of your field?"

The question is rhetorical, of course: A Colleaque is arguing that research is necessary to be a good teacher, and I disagree.

A liberal arts education involves students learning how to read, how to think, how to synthesize and communicate. A liberal arts education is not about getting students to recognize the current intellectual fad in sociology, psychology, history, etc.

You can teach students how to think and communicate without referencing current research in the slightest. After all, isn't this a little bit of what they are doing at St. John's College (Santa Fe/Annapolis), where students read the Great Books for their four years?  

I would pose a different rhetorical question: "how can you really be a good teacher if you are not willing to be a good learner and approach each class you 'teach' as if you are teaching it for the first time?"

What infuriates me about what I have observed at some of the research institutions where I have taught (or been a graduate student) is not that faculty members conduct research. It is that they approach the classes they teach as if they are foregone conclusions. Many faculty members prep classes once or twice and then use the same lecture notes for the next twenty years. And others act as if they have nothing to learn from what their students have to say, a perspective I find atrocious and that negates the entire point of a liberal education.

What I loved about the liberal arts college I attended was that the structure of the university allowed professors more free reign with what they taught. They did not seem as constrained by prerequisites or demands that Topic A, B and C be taught in Course A ... . As a result, faculty offered course after course of new, interesting, innovative material. This material did not necessarily end up in the most recent journals, but it ended up in our classrooms, where it belonged ... .


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