Stop attacking university research

If professors don’t produce research, who will?


Photo by NASA Goddard Photo and Video on Flickr

University research is under attack these days. This editorial in the Globe and Mail is just the latest call for “reform” of a system where university professors are, they say, too devoted to research, contemptuous of teaching, and wasting the public’s money. If professors spent more time teaching and less time researching, taxpayers and students would get more bang for their buck, they argue. As a student and a young scholar, I always took the value of university research for granted.

Apparently I can’t any longer.

One reason such editorializing is wrong-headed is that the anti-teaching prof is a myth. While those outside the academy like to represent today’s professor as a hyper-nerd who can churn out papers but not explain anything, the stereotype simply doesn’t hold up. In nine years as a student and eleven as a professor, I have met only a few professors who hated teaching, and not a single one who didn’t work hard at it.

Secondly, contrary to so-called reformers, conducting research is not distinct from teaching. While some see research as a professorial hobby horse used to gallop away from real work, research actually makes professors better teachers. Why? Because higher education aims to introduce students to scholarly disciplines, and educators can’t do that at the highest level without being directly involved in the discipline itself.

Let me provide just one example from my own work. Much of my research has focused on the connection between literature and the history of medicine. Once, while researching Elizabethan attitudes towards dying, I came across a related treatise on repentance and found an interesting passage on the importance of making restitution to the heirs of dead people one has wronged. The passage had no direct bearing on the research I was doing, but it provides an instructive commentary on Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and is now part of my lectures on Hamlet in which I get students to think about restitution and how they relate to the big moral questions of the play — and of the world. I would have never thought to have looked for it; I found it only because my research led me there.

Finally, when it comes to basic research, there is a simple question: if we don’t do it, who will? The private sector will support research that has clear profit-potential, but that’s almost all they will support. Universities have a unique value in our society because they are the one place where we try to find the smartest, most creative people we can, and let them explore what seems most interesting to them. We can’t necessarily measure the monetary impact of that work—but any civilization that cares only about monetary impact should be ashamed of itself. Much research may end up being pointless, more may be modest, but some will change the world. I get nervous when well-meaning groups like the AUCC  promote research largely based on its practical and commercial potential. Somebody has to be above that.

Of course, the details will be and should be a matter of ongoing debate. How many courses should professors teach? Should top researchers teach less? How many professors should be part-timers? Should some universities be more research-focused than others? Good questions.

But to attack research generally, to try to turn university into just four more years of high school, is naive anti-intellectualism. Even if you call it “reform.”


Stop attacking university research

  1. More canadian researchers, the really good ones, will head south of the border,

  2. “In nine years as a student and eleven as a professor, I have met only a few professors who hated teaching, and not a single one who didn’t work hard at it.”

    But you also teach at a small university where teaching is prioritized. Not all universities have the same organizational culture as CBU. During my time as a grad student in a research focused department, I encountered several professors who viewed teaching as a nuisance. One, whom I TAed for, openly told me of the contempt he had for undergrads. They were a “waste of his time.”

    Further, many professors didn’t openly demonstrate contempt for teaching, but they certainly didn’t devote themselves to it with the same rigour with which they dealt with their research. They did their lectures and composed exams. They gave students advice when students asked for it. But they certainly weren’t going to give it more time than it minimally required.

    I think many professors don’t mind teaching. But they certainly don’t commit much time to learning how to be effective teachers, to discovering how learning works or advancing the craft of teaching in any way. They certainly don’t approach it with the rigor or enthusiasm with which they approach their research.

    Lastly, institutions are hardly rigorous in reviewing one’s teaching record beyond the terribly designed “evaluations” they hand out. Compare how teaching is evaluated at a tenure review vs. the way one’s publication record is carefully parsed by review committees. It becomes clear where the priorities of the institution are.

    I’m glad your colleagues at CBU are committed to teaching and work hard at it. This speaks well of the institution. But I think it is a serious mistake to assume that this commitment exists at all post-secondary institutions. (I’m willing to bet that commitment to teaching is something you find much more at smaller institutions)

  3. The issue is not teaching versus research, it is the amount and quality of research being produced relative to the money being spent by the taxpayers and students. Pre-tenure faculty kill themselves trying to develop and teach courses for the first time while also scrambling to produce enough quality research to earn tenure. And of course we can’t forget the committees and other service commitments they take on just to please the senior faculty members who will sit in judgment of their tenure application. Junior faculty are not the problem! The senior faculty are the problem – tenured and very highly paid, they hog the graduate seminars so they can fulfill their teaching load requirements with classes of 5-10 students. If they teach undergrad classes they whine until they get teaching assistants or markers – this reduces their contact with bothersome students while reducing their grading burden considerably. They require minimum prep time because they recycle the same old courses for years, so they actually spend only 6-9 hours a week on teaching (maybe a few more hours if they actually do their own marking!). Even if they sit on a committee, that service obligation usually requires little more than one or two meetings a month. They may also supervise a grad student or two, but they are rarely a major burden beyond the last half year of their program. This leaves plenty of time for research – but where is the research? That is the real question!!! Every department has its share of “flatliners” – the people who do the minimum necessary teaching and service, but whose research agenda shows no signs of life. Year after year they draw taxpayer and student funded salaries to conduct research, but year after year they fail to publish anything – in some cases they go for five or more years without winning an external grant or producing a single journal article, and a decade or more without producing a monograph. Yet all the while they draw their salaries – sometimes in excess of $150,000 per year! To their credit, some university administrations struggle to hold such faculty accountable, but powerful unions and an entrenched culture of entitlement make it very difficult to penalize an unproductive researcher or force them into a teaching-intensive stream. This is the real outrage, and I would welcome a Maclean’s investigation of how taxpayer funds are squandered on these “flatliners” in universities across Canada.

  4. Don’t know much about university research having had no contact with any university for sixty years.
    What I gather from outside the ivory towers is that most of it gets financial support in the form of grants from large corporations like the pharmaceutical companies and that makes me wary of the results.
    While I was being educated I classified teachers and professors into two classes: Those who thought of themselves as teaching an inferior species and those that thought of themselves as students still learning.
    I had more of the later group in my youth. That is why after 80 years of life experiences I still think of myself as a student.
    I enjoy studying the comments on media articles; it teaches much about human nature.

  5. I’ve taught at universities for two decades. I greatly enjoy teaching but what is most enjoyable and rewarding is direct contact with students. Large classes are as alienating for professors as they are for students, but that is the direction universities seem to be going in as they increasingly embrace a corporate model for higher education. Actually the emphasis has shifted from educating students to think to training and credentialing them for some (hopefully mid-level) position down the road. As this occurs, more and more faculty naturally retreat to their research and to teaching and mentoring graduate students. This comments on the corporatization of higher education, not on teaching per se which I believe most of my colleagues genuinely find rewarding.

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