Teaching and/or Research

August 2, 2010

Some compliments make you wince a bit.

This month’s issue of The Atlantic carries an interview with Andrew Hacker, public intellectual and emeritus professor of Political Science at Queens College, entitled “What’s Wrong with the American University System?” Hacker has just published a book wirth Claudia Dreifus (of the New York Times) entitled Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids and What We Can Do About It.

Referring to Earlham, Hendrix College in Arkansas and Linfield College in Oregon, Hacker remarks “they provide a good education because they don’t expect professors to do research.”

I certainly believe we provide a good education at Earlham, but I wouldn’t put the reason the way Hacker does.  We hire and retain faculty principally on the basis of whether they are effective teachers.  Unlike many other colleges and universities, we do not separately evaluate them on their research. That is, we don’t divide our faculty members’ efforts and attentions into two distinct enterprises.  That does make us unusual.

But we hardly discourage our faculty members from doing research, and we do a great deal to support research and celebrate the fruits of research.  Why?  For two main reasons.  First, because we believe that our faculty needs to stay intellectually fresh and active in order to good teachers year after year, and they largely do that through research.  And second, a great deal of the best student learning happens when faculty engage students in research.  Doing research with students is some of the very best of teaching.

Trouble can come when faculty members have expectations for research that pulls them away from a primary focus on learning and teaching.  In my experience at other institutions, some faculty members are superb at balancing the two claims on their time and talents, but others aren’t — and their teaching can suffer.  At many colleges and universities, regular publication is the most important consideration in personnel evaluations and teaching becomes a secondary matter.  That’s what Hacker is complaining about.

At Earlham, I want us to keep the primary focus on student learning, and we will.

In a note on our faculty listserv, my colleague Paul Lacey (emeritus Professor of English, former Provost and former Acting President) makes a related point, which I’ll quote at length below (all that follows is from Paul).

Hacker clearly wants to suggest that good intellectually satisfying colleges can do their (our) work without making the narrowest definition of research the chief criterion for faculty excellence.  Sadly, he does stick with an outmoded teaching/research dichotomy. Ernest Boyer’s study College: The Undergraduate Experience in America, 1987, makes what is for me a far more useful distinction–and not an invidious comparison–between research and scholarship. All of us are trained to do research, often by doing a dissertation that exhausts our interest in the particular subject and teaches us how to do a kind of writing we may never do again.  Scholarship requires, at the minimum, that we stay abreast of our field, read the articles and books that give us new insights into what and how we should approach our discipline. Boyer argues that the results of our scholarly work ought to be made available for judgment. “Apart from publishing books, monographs or articles in journals, a scholar can write textbooks, participate in conferences, develop new approaches to instruction, and most especially, be more effective in the classroom. In one or a combination of these ways, such activities should be evaluated by peers. How else can we judge whether a faculty member is staying professionally alive?

“…Scholarship is not an esoteric appendage; it is at the heart of what the profession is all about….As scholars, they must continue to learn and be seriously and continuously engaged in the expanding intellectual world. This is essential to the vitality and vigor of the undergraduate college.” (p131) In the same chapter of this book, Boyer documents how very small a percentage of faculty–even in research universities–actually publish regularly. Boyer says that the great issue for college teachers is how to get intellectually and personally refreshed regularly, for its own sake and so the refreshment can be available to both colleagues and students.

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About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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