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Guest Thinkers

Teaching, Research, and ME

It’s surely appropriate that I follow up a post on my SUMMER VACATION with one on the two kinds of WORK of the college teacher.  More than one person who read the previous post remarked that I was just reminding people that, for the college teacher, the phrase “summer vacation” is redundant. 

People like me, they say with an unattractive mixture of envy and resentment, have the whole summer off.  I respond: But I’m doing my cutting-edge RESEARCH!  Even my wife, who’s usually loyal, says give me a break.

Here’s a sad fact that doesn’t apply to me so much right now (but did when I was paying preppy school tuition rather than home schooling):  Faculty members who teach heavy loads during the regular year usually end up having to teach during the summer too.

That’s for two reasons:  Faculty members with the heaviest teaching loads have the lowest salaries.  AND:  They don’t have time do the research required to get funding to have time to do research.

So a faculty member who devotes his or her life primarily to teaching is, according any objective measure, a SUCKER.

The goal is to get time to do research (and publish and all) and so to get a job whether there’s plenty of time to do research.  Time spent teaching, from this entrepreneurial view, is time wasted.

As I’ve written before, a tenured faculty member who’s all about the teaching is pretty much stuck where he or she is.  Good teaching, despite the best efforts of many boring professors of education with minimal knowledge of statistics, is pretty much impossible to quantify, at least in most fields.  And in any case:  Teaching, in part, is about FIT with the institution.  It’s not clear how much being an effective teacher one place transfers to another.  Because sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t, colleges don’t want to take a chance on mere reputations when making hiring decisions, especially beyond the entry level.  Nobody has less bargaining power that someone who’s employer knows he or she ain’t going anywhere no matter what.  Tenure, from this view, is less about liberation than about being chained up.

In any case, college and university administrators are often not that interested in how the classroom teaching is going.  Or at least they believe that professors are pretty much expendable and replaceable.  College presidents and such are in fact much more expendable and replacable than good professors of philosophy, but it’s understandable why they usually don’t think of themselves that way. 

So the only reason 4-year colleges (which aren’t about cutting-edge research) give time and “count” faculty research appears to be a humane one.  They want to give their faculty members some incentive and a fighting chance to be marketable.  But in most cases, the professors’ success in being researchers, although sometimes remarkable, doesn’t usually rival what’s done by those who have a lot more time.  So the good researchers at 4-year collegs usually get the paternalistic recognition of making the all-star team in a weak league.  And it’s assumed that if they were really good, they wouldn’t be in that league. On the whole, a study could easily show they’re not so good; the best and the brightest do gravitate to the big bucks and light workloads of the research institution.

So the 4-year college professor starts out behind and then is condemned to a world of (relative) drudgery that will cause him or her to get further and further behind.  But there is another way of looking at the situation.

Now, according to Naomi Schaefer Riley, we have studies  that show that teaching aids research.  Most of these studies are about experimental science, and so I don’t know and hardly care whether or not they’re on the money.  But the proposition is backed up by my own experience and common sense:  You don’t really know something until you explain to the others.

In my own experience, every time I teach a book (and I only use real books–as opposed to textbooks), I reread it.  And every time I read it, I see stuff I missed before.  That really, really helps me in my research.  That’s because my so-called research is pretty much writing essays about “great books” (or at least really good books) and how they help us understand what’s going on today.  By teaching it time and again, I’m constantly explaining to very young people how it applies to their lives.

Not only that, I’ve spent over 30 years teaching at a small college.  So I’ve taught all sorts of courses out of my field, courses that aren’t about anything I studied in graduate school.  Those courses about are about stuff I should know to understand our country’s political life–such as constitutional law.  It turns out that I’ve never taught a course that hasn’t resulted in some kind of publication and not helped out in articles and books apparently having nothing to do with the course.

I could go on here.  But the moral is something like this.  The idea of publication–at least in the social sciences and humanities–is controlled by the hyper-specialization of the research university.  So, in my experience, too many professors at small colleges suffer from “self-esteem isues” that keep them from writing what they really know, from exploiting the superiority of their more comprehensive perspective.

I hate words like “interdisciplinary” because they’re empty, overused, and usually dripping with vanity.  But in a certain way, the superiority of the 4-year college teacher comes from having no discipline.  Everyone who really knows me knows I have no discipline.  Just take a look at my office.


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