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Monday, May 16, 2011

Research and the College Professor

We want our college professors, even those who end up teaching in small liberal arts colleges, to have a PhD from a Research 1 Department. The PhD is a research degree, and a lot of what you have to do as a PhD students has nothing to do with undergraduate education or your future career. So why make people who just want to teach college jump through so many hoops? There have been suggestions that the PhD is too long and hard, etc...

The idea here is that Graduate Courses are not just courses on the subject matter, but courses taught by people who have done research on that subject matter, have first hand knowledge of it at a granular level. This means that the subject matter itself changes, is developed, would not be taught the same way twenty years later. So college professors, even if they are not active researchers themselves after the PhD, at least have up-to-date knowledge when they begin. They have been exposed to some really good minds.

Now really good SLACS like Oberlin also want their professors to continue to do research themselves. The teaching load there is almost equivalent to what it is at a research 1 University. So they want their undergraduate students, also, to be exposed to really good minds actively engaged in research. I'm sure if you have ever taught a course you've seen the difference between students who care whether you have an interesting mind, and those who don't.

If you see teaching as transmitting knowledge in a very basic way, then I guess research would not matter. As long as you knew a little more than the students, you would be fine. It wouldn't matter whether you had thought about the texts you are teaching in a new way in twenty years. For myself, I know things get stale after a while. I need to find myself new things to teach, new approaches to teaching, etc...

It's interesting that upper middle-class people want their kids to go to places where the professors do research. They wouldn't articulate it like that, necessarily, but they choose selective liberal arts colleges, Ivy leagues, or the best of the "flagship" state universities, if their kids can get in. If they thought only teaching mattered, then they might choose less highly ranked institutions where professors are actively discouraged from even thinking about research.


Clarissa said...

Many parents would be very surprised to learn that at Yale, for example, less than 30% of undergrad courses are taught by those famous scholars who do research. For the most part, courses are taught by adjuncts, instructors, graduate students, or, even worse, spouses. A student has a much higher chance of being taught at the freshman and sophomore level by an actual PhD who does actual research at my third-tier state university than at Yale.

Jonathan said...

That's very true. That's why I think I got a better undergraduate education at a 2nd tier state school (UC Davis) than I would have at Yale or Princeton. I went to grad school with a woman who had gone to Yale who was insufferable about it. She was just dumb but was always bragging because she had gone to Yale.

profacero said...

But the content of this post is what needs to go to an op-ed in everyone's local paper. Not that our faculty handbook doesn't explain it all very well ... it's actually exceptionally good on that, and the merit system literally adds points to the review of your teaching if you are engaged in research. But the general public and many of our own instructors and adjuncts don't know why research is important.

Clarissa said...

I have a feeling that I'm very lucky with the university where I work. Our administrators are not simply supportive of research. It's like they are obsessed with it. Whenever you publish something, everybody celebrates and congratulates you. From the moment I signed the contract, people kept telling me, "What we need from you is that you publish. Forget everything else, just do research." Which is exactly what I like to hear.

profacero said...

@Clarissa, your institution is trying to move up and you're a designated hitter. It's a great situation.

What I've usually gotten is stuff like:
"We don't believe you should be doing this / we believe you cannot do this"
"Our institution doesn't believe it should be doing this"
"Your discipline is not designated to do this at this institution, and we will actively block it"
"It is hurtful to others that you have succeeded at this"
and all sorts of other stuff like that.