On Campus

Should some profs focus mainly on teaching?

Prof. Pettigrew rejects calls to be "more like California"

Shane Global Language Centres/Flickr

Every once in a while we hear calls for more emphasis on teaching among university faculty.

If we accept that some universities have, or should have, undergraduate teaching as their main function, why shouldn’t professors, or at least some professors, at those school be asked to focus mainly on teaching?

After all, if they are there to teach, why should we be paying them to pursue their own research interests, especially if that research is not paying off in tangible ways?

Something like this argument was made recently by Ian Clark writing in the National Post, who argues that more specialization among faculty would mean more research “productivity”—that is more output per public dollar spent. He argues, in this vein, that California does something like that and gets “more value for its money” that way.

I, for one, reject this approach. For one thing, research cannot, or at least, should not, be boiled down entirely into hard numbers and sterile economic terms. Of course, you can measure productivity by publications, but such a measuring process will inevitably lead to a poisoned atmosphere where every professor competes with every other professor.

Still worse, this approach undoubtedly leads to researchers caring more and more about the publications themselves and less and less about the real importance of what they’re publishing.  I was once at a conference where I heard a physicist admit that many of his American colleagues are doing work they know will never produce results, but they can’t stop because to do so would be to lose out on the grant money that the university demands they procure.

More importantly, teaching and research are not exclusive. This is obviously true for graduate students whose research is supervised by faculty, but is also true for those of us who teach mainly or exclusively undergraduates. I continually discover things in my research on Shakespeare, for instance, that enriches my teaching of that subject. Still further, even undergraduate university instructors are expected to remain reasonably current with the latest developments in the field, and keeping professors up to date is best accomplished by ensuring they have active research programs. One might argue that the teaching-emphasis professors would still be able to do some research, but with more courses, less funding, and less encouragement, it seems likely that the teaching-emphasis professor would soon become something like the teaching-only professor.

Similarly, one of the great rewards of attending university as a student is the opportunity to learn from and study with researchers who are actively helping shape the very field you are studying. Already one frequently hears complaints that undergraduates never see the best researchers at their universities: an emphasis on “productivity” would only move us further in that misdirection.

Any civilization worth calling itself a civilization needs to have at least a few places where the frostbitten calculus of economic productivity does not reign, where we sometimes have to be okay with getting less for our money. Every university should be one of those places.