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.

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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.”