Brief thought exercise: In higher education, research is hard. It takes time (presumably). So is there truly any incentive to actually focus on teaching?

Two quick anecdotes to jump this off:

1. Last night, I was going to a graduate school class. I ran into my friend on the steps and we stood there talking for 10-15 minutes — in the process annoying the crap out of everyone trying to pass us, no doubt — about life and school and all that. An interesting tidbit came up: I had taken a class called “International HR,” which was essentially about managing people in different countries/cultures. He was taking a class called “International Business Strategy,” which was about the same thing, but with more of a focus towards revenue generation. They had similar professors (in previous years, I believe they had the same professor) and, oddly, each class only ran six weeks (there are entire divisions of companies dedicated to International Strategy, so on surface you’d assume this should be a full-semester class). Anyway, here was the takeaway: the classes were very similar. They started with a framework of how to evaluate countries — collectivist, individual, etc. — and moved from there, with a healthy dose of (a) PowerPoint and (b) guest speakers. A third person briefly joined the dialogue, kind of got the context of what we were discussing, and said something along the lines of, “Well, you know (Professor of Class 1) is more research-focused, and, well, so is Professor of Class 2.”

2. But of course. Last year, around this time, I was helping with some course evaluations and I was also applying to be a TA for this year (I was in the fall). I asked a manager in my program/school about professor evaluations and how much rested on the actual teaching. “For tenure-type discussions?” she said. I nodded. “Probably very little. Perhaps almost none.”

I don’t present any of this as unique. It’s clearly not. “Research vs. teaching” has 224 million Google hits, including here, here, and here. It’s a major issue — you can easily argue it’s the major issue of academia, perhaps behind only tenure (and tenure isn’t going anywhere) — because if all the focus is on research and the teaching starts to slip, then who’s inspiring this next generation of would-be researchers? Well, the conventional answer is probably that the entire thing is a ladder — at an associate professor level (pre-tenure), you teach more and research to get yourself that tenure. You ideally inspire those future generations when you teach. As you become more established, you teach less — essentially the classes you know well and have been doing for 10-12 years, if not longer — and research more. At least, that’s how it seems to work. There are obviously flaws with the model; I was in one of those “been teaching this exact course for 15 years” courses a few nights ago, and we spent over 50 minutes discussing a legal case from the early 1990s. That would be fine on surface, but the problem was, we were discussing it in terms of “What might happen here?” (a whodunit!) and yet everyone in the class had laptops out and could have easily Googled the answer, talked about the context of it, and moved on. We didn’t need to be spending an hour there (IMHO). This all ties back to the issue of “grades vs. content” too. 

Universities make money off of research, and you’re never going to tell an organization — be it a college, a for-profit, whatever — to turn their people away from the revenue streams. So there’s clearly no easy answer here; I didn’t write this post to try and find one, either. Could there be a year-on, year-off situation where every other year your focus has to be teaching and refining that craft, whereas in your odd years you can focus solely on research and not have to worry about syllabi, grade grubbers, etc? I doubt that would be sustainable, but it’s one idea.

Look, college (and grad school) are huge investments for people, and they put said people (generally) into sizable amounts of debt that ultimately have some impact (different people will tell you different amounts) on home buying, the general notion of the middle class, etc. If you’re primarily going to grad school to ultimately get a job (or going to undergrad with the same intention), you want good teachers an good connections; the research arm of it is less relevant in that context. But it’s very hard to enter an university community and encounter those focused on or passionate around teaching — and that’s a problem if this model of “we’re falling behind learning-wise and increasing debt-wise” is going to continue. If anyone has solutions/ideas, feel free to leave ’em in the comments.

Ted Bauer