Why the Best ‘Teaching’ Universities Have Faculty Who Research

researchAt some point during graduate school one comes to discover that within academia there’s a distinction between a “research job” and a “teaching job.” Most research jobs will come with an expectation for their faculty to teach just a few courses per year, and half of those courses could very well be graduate seminars with only a handful of students. Typically, tenure and promotion decisions for these faculty members will be heavily dependent on the amount and quality of their research. Teaching isn’t entirely ignored, but faculty at research jobs certainly wouldn’t earn tenure on the back of their teaching alone.

At the other end is the teaching job where most of the emphasis is on just that, time spent teaching students. Instead of teaching just a few courses a year, faculty at teaching schools are expected to teach significantly more and this is reflected in how they’re evaluated on a yearly basis. Some schools require so much teaching that it’s unrealistic to expect any research from them at all.

Now, this distinction is somewhat helpful in that it’s simply true that many universities place a greater emphasis on research while others place it on teaching. Unfortunately, this distinction also makes it easier for one to believe that the choice is to do one or the other. Not only is it possible to do both, but not doing both can actually be quite problematic.

Problems Facing “Research” Jobs

Take, for example, schools that require significant research from their faculty and downplay their time with students. The first problem with this is that there is little “contact-time” with students. By that I mean the faculty will only teach a handful of courses and many of those (at the undergraduate level, at least) will have very large sections of students. Because faculty couldn’t possibly do their research and also grade several hundred essays and exams, graduate students will perform most of those duties. When questions about assignments come up, students are directed to the graduate/teaching assistants for answers. Now, I firmly believe in the value of the traditional lecture (for a great defense of the lecture, see this post by my colleague Craig Carter), but faculty who only see their students during the lecture simply will not have enough time to become fully acquainted with those students. This leads to a second problem.

If faculty do not have the time to develop a meaningful relationship with their students, then there will never be opportunities to accomplish one of the longest-standing aims of the university; the impartation of wisdom through mentorship. Historically, the purpose of going to university was not simply to learn some new facts about the world, and it certainly wasn’t simply to gain something as vulgar as “job skills.” Instead, the overarching purpose, that tied together the learning of facts about the world and the acquisition of job skills, was to become a better citizen. Faculty were to play a vital role in helping the student develop as a whole person.

Problems Facing “Teaching” Jobs

This is certainly a worthy aim, and we ought to strive to bring it back to its rightful place as a centerpiece of the university. However, there are better and worse ways to go about doing that. The wrong way to do it is to devalue, and then de-emphasize, research entirely. Because this approach is motivated by something so noble, a “student-centered” or “student-first” philosophy, it can be a bit more difficult to see the various problems that arise from taking it. For now, let’s focus on just those problems most directly related to the current discussion of teaching and research jobs.1

First, when there is little to no research expectations of faculty there is no need to provide faculty with the time for careful reflection about their discipline, about how they’re serving the academic community, or even about their teaching. This reflection, however, is a critical element to being able to prepare and deliver first-rate courses to the very students the “student-first” philosophy aims to assist. In other words, it turns out that allowing faculty the time for research actually improves their teaching too. From talking with faculty at various schools, it seems there is a tendency for administrators who’ve never been full-time faculty members2 to think about the faculty’s various roles in a segmented way. That is, there’s an assumption that the faculty’s responsibilities are non-overlapping. When they’re doing research, they just can’t possibly focus on their other duties. But this is simply false. As anyone who has spent time doing both would tell you, the same time spent reflecting on a research project inevitably contributes, in one way or the other, to meaningful revisions in one’s courses.

This leads into a second problem for promoting teaching at the expense of research. Faculty who don’t research have a hard time staying in touch with their various disciplines. This is because research is a primary way to stay connected with new developments within a discipline. For example, when I’m perusing the recent issue of Faith & Philosophy or Philosophia Christi I’m not only seeing which new articles are related to my current research, but I’m also thinking about which articles students would benefit from reading. I’m coming across connections between various ideas that I never noticed before, and am starting to consider how that might necessitate a revision to my lecture notes. Failing to encourage research not only leads to stale, perhaps even outdated, lectures but it also disadvantages those students who end up wanting to attend graduate school. This happens in at least two ways. First, as stated above, those students won’t be acquainted with the newest developments in the field. So even if they get accepted into graduate programs they’ll be far behind their peers. Second, faculty who are prevented from being able to research won’t be as equipped to make recommendations to their students about which programs are best suited for their interests and abilities.3

Both of the above show how emphasizing teaching at the expense of research directly harms the student experience. But there is at least one more, indirect, way that students are harmed. Discouraging research from faculty leads to their personal discouragement. That will always lead to a diminished classroom experience for students. Let me explain. Most people who enter the academy do so because they are interested in pursuing various important questions. If, however, their teaching burdens are so great that they won’t ever have the time to continue pursuing those questions, then it’s only a matter of time before discouragement sets in. This approach dangerously ignores the interests and desires of the faculty and treats them simply as a means to deliver courses to students. A devalued, deflated, or discouraged faculty simply cannot fully invest themselves into the very students this “student-first” philosophy aims to serve, no matter how hard those faculty members try.

There’s one more problem for universities, unique to Christian ones, that fail to encourage their faculty to do research. It ignores the larger role that faculty can play in advancing the Gospel. This point is so well captured in the preamble to Houston Baptist University’s inspiring “10 Pillars” vision document that I’ll just quote it here. They note:

Unfortunately, four-year Christian liberal arts colleges and universities have, in many cases, slowly devolved towards providing a secondary and synthetic style of education. Professors who could be making substantial contributions to leading-edge thinking and presentation are overburdened with heavy teaching loads, are not given adequate time for research and scholarly productivity… and thus are often not on the front lines of debates that shape the modern world.

A Better Way Forward

So, it seems there are problems with an overemphasis on research and there are also problems with an overemphasis on teaching. Well, the solution should be obvious; don’t overemphasize either. This distinction between research jobs and teaching jobs (employed not only by graduate students, but also many faculty and their administrators) is only somewhat helpful. It overlooks the fact that many universities, Tyndale University College being one of them, put a significant emphasis on both.

When asked if Tyndale is a ‘teaching job’ or a ‘research job’, my response is, “Yes.”4

The quality of research happening at Tyndale is simply astounding, and yet there is a level of care and devotion to students that you’ll only occasionally see from professors in the so-called research jobs. This reality highlights one of the main problems with the teaching/research job distinction. It obscures the fact that it’s possible to do both, and to do both really well.

Even if some schools encourage research so much that they ignore the importance of faculty-student relationships, it’s unwise to try and build, or sustain, a university that does just the opposite. The very best universities will both care deeply about the student experience and encourage faculty, by providing them with the necessary time and resources, to engage their disciplines through research.

Footnotes

  1. One significant problem, that isn’t directly related to the topic of this post, is that this approach encourages the “student as customer” mentality. That utterly wrong-headed notion might be the cause of more problems in higher education than any other.
  2. In his book, The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matters (Oxford, 2011), Benjamin Ginsberg calls them “deanlets and deanlings.” See this Insider Higher Ed interview for an overview of this interesting book.
  3. As a quick aside, the second of seven objectives spelled out in Tyndale’s charter with the Government of Ontario is actually to “produce graduates who are well equipped to compete for admission to graduate and professional schools…” I guess we should take this concern seriously!
  4. You can ask some of Dr. Davis’s logic students about the “inclusive or” to find out why that reply isn’t nonsense.

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