The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"Those who do not publish usually feel they have not learned anything worth communicating to adults. This means that they have not learned much worth
communicating to the young either."... ...Christopher Jenks and David Riesman, The Academic Revolution (1969)

Commentary of the Day - December 30, 2004:  Is There a Link Between Teaching and Research?  Guest Commentary by Nils Clausson.

I began my academic career as a teaching assistant in 1969, the same year that Jenks and Riesman published The Academic Revolution.  In the thirty-five years since then I have never heard a single colleague question one of the foundational myths of my profession; namely, that good teaching is inseparable from active research.  Indeed, the justification for the emphasis on research as the route to advancement in the modern university continues to be the argument that good teaching is inseparable from research.  The words of Jenks and Riesman would, I suspect, raise no eyebrows if published in 2004. Article I of the "Preamble Statement on Academic Appointments and Tenure" in the Handbook of the Canadian Association of University Teachers reads: "The essential functions of a university are the pursuit and dissemination of knowledge and understanding through research and teaching."  The document goes on to state: "…the teaching and research functions of the university should not normally be separated. Research informs the teaching process within the university and keeps it current.  This is true both at the undergraduate and the graduate levels."

The clear implication of this orthodoxy is that it's the same people who do the research and the teaching.  But as anyone who works in a university knows, a major part of the undergraduate (and especially first-year) teaching in Canadian (and, I suspect American) universities is done not by tenured faculty actively engaged in research, but by graduate students and adjunct, temporary instructors.  Yet we still cling to the orthodoxy that regular research and frequent publications are essential to good undergraduate instruction on the grounds that these activities keep the professors up to date.  Those who do not publish are not up to date and are, therefore, unsatisfactory teachers.  Does anyone seriously think that writing an article on an eighteenth-century novelist whom only a handful of scholars has ever read will keep me up to date on what is happening in English Studies?  The proponents of such egregious nonsense are peddling snake oil, although they don't know it's snake oil.

Ironically, research carried out at universities on the relation between good teaching and research cannot find any link between them.  As it turns out, all the research supports just the opposite conclusion: absolutely no empirical data exist to support the pious faith (for that is what it is) that effective teaching is related to on-going research.  Rushton, Murray, and Paunonen (1983) make this point unambiguously: "being good, bad, or indifferent at one activity [research] has very little implication for performance at the other [teaching]."  Later studies by Feldman (1987) confirm this conclusion: "an obvious interpretation of these results is either that, in general, the likelihood that research productivity actually benefits teaching is extremely small or that the two, for all practical purposes, are essentially unrelated."  Summaries of research by Webster (1985) and later by Neill (1985; 1989) stress the conclusions reached by every reliable study of this question: there is simply no evidence whatsoever to support the view that academic research and publication have a beneficial effect upon instruction.   There is not a single study that supports the orthodox piety.   The classic refutation of this piety is still Henry C. Crimmel's 1984 essay in Liberal Education entitled "The Myth of the Teacher Scholar."  Every professor should read it.

Now, as Ian Johnston (1991) has pointed out, there is a contradiction between what the research says and what professors (no doubt sincerely) believe.  On the one hand, those who defend the orthodox university position on the indissoluble connections between research, publication and teaching rest their case on the claim that a demonstrated and informed expertise guarantees intellectual and pedagogical excellence, since it requires a commitment to basing one's beliefs on up-to-date empirical evidence produced through research.  But this claim shows no familiarity with the consistent research evidence quoted above, all of which has been available for years, demonstrating conclusively that such a claim is absolutely unsubstantiated, indeed, contradicted, by university researchers.  Thus the claim about the sacred interconnections between research and teaching begins to appear to be nothing more than an Article of Faith, a reflex defense of the academic status quo, rather than an informed conclusion based upon the best available results of creditable and reliable research upon which the university claims to be founded.  As Johnston perceptively points out, even if one argues that the variables are very complex, especially in evaluations of the quality of teaching, and, therefore, that we need more studies of this complex issue, that does not mean that we should accept as true the confident assertions about the importance of research and publications for excellent teaching.  Quite to the contrary, the extraordinary lack of support for this claim should encourage us to bring to it a very large degree of skepticism and to remind those making the claim that the onus is on them to prove their assertions.

But the ironies and contradictions don't stop there.  The university prides itself on its practice of teaching students, especially undergraduates, to read texts closely, to analyze positions critically, to uncover tacit presuppositions, to construct cogent arguments, and to explain and argue in clear persuasive writing -- in short, to analyze and construct good arguments.  We professors devote a great deal of our time and energy (and rightly so) trying to get our students to recognize all kinds of basic errors in logic, to learn about what counts as a reasonable presentation of a case based on good and sufficient evidence and reliable principles -- and, of course, what does not.  And we try to foster in our students an attitude of skepticism about various claims which are not rationally grounded.  The subject matter may vary from English to archaeology, from psychology to women's studies, but the challenge of instructing students in reasoning remains remarkably constant across disciplines in all years of the undergraduate program.  Yet on the question of the link between research and teaching, we as a profession believe what is essentially the equivalent of those who argue that creationist science is a valid scientific alternative to neo-Darwinism in biology, or that alien spaceships regularly visit Earth, or that the Holocaust did not take place.  Or that Elvis has been sighted in a diner in Fargo, North Dakota.

The obvious question is, why does the university cling to this unfounded idea in the face of so much contrary evidence?  For those who have studied this issue, such as Neill (1989) and Webster (1985), the answer is clear enough: university professors and, even more, the administration of the university, have to believe (probably sincerely do believe) that research has an integral connection with good teaching in order to justify to themselves and to the public the structure of the workload.  Only if we accept the belief that research and publication are a necessary part of excellent instruction can we then properly defend the arrangement whereby generous allocations of time and money are given to tenured professors for teaching in institutions in which the overwhelming majority of the full-time students are undergraduates.  While the public is not averse to research (especially in science), they nevertheless believe that the money they spend on securing a university education for their sons and daughters is justified because of the quality of the teaching given to students.  And the proof of the quality of the teaching is the research credentials of the professors who teach there.  But the real reason professors engage in research is not to improve the instruction in their undergraduate classrooms.  They engage in research because that is why they became professors in the first place.  No one became an astronomer, or an economist, or and English professor in order to teach students astronomy, economics, or English literature.  I certainly didn't.  So if we want to justify being paid for doing research we should do so on the grounds that the research is important, and not that it will make us better teachers.

I do not question the sincerity of those who believe that research leads to good teaching.  They are rather like those Christians who piously affirm their belief in the divinity of Christ even though there is not a shred of evidence to suggest anything of the kind.  To stop believing in the divinity of Christ would, for them, be to stop being a Christian.  It is an article of faith and no amount of argument from me will change their minds.  When I showed a copy of this article to a colleague, she just shook her head and said, "I don't believe it, I just don't believe it, I refuse to believe it.  If I believed this was true, then my whole life has been lie.  And I can't believe that."

I believe it, and I don't think my whole life has been a lie.  But I do know that the articles I recently published in Genre, Papers on Language and Literature, and Critical Survey have not made me a better teacher than I was before I published them. I also publish poetry, but I don't believe that doing so improves my teaching of poetry.

I am not suggesting that we professors stop researching (I plan to keep on writing articles and to enjoy doing it).  By all means, let's continue to do research, but let us do it on the grounds that it adds to human knowledge, not that it makes us better teachers.  And let's stop pretending that being a successful researcher makes one a better teacher.  It just ain't so.

Works Cited

Crimmel, Henry H. "The Myth of the Teacher Scholar."  Liberal Education 70.3 (Fall 1984): 183-98.

Feldman, Kenneth. "Research Productivity and Scholarly Accomplishment of College Teachers as Related to Their Instructional Effectiveness: A Review and Exploration." Research in Higher Education 26.3 (1987): 227-298.

Johnston, Ian C. "Myth Conceptions of Academic Work." Canadian Journal of Higher Education 21.2 (1991): 108-16.

Neill, S. D. "Researcher/Teacher: Is There a Link?" University of Western Ontario Alumni Gazette (Winter, 1985): 32.

________. "No Significant Relationship Between Research and Teaching, Research Reveals." University Affairs 30.4 (April 1989): 18.

Rushton, J. P., H. G. Murray, and S. V. Paunonen. "Personality, Research Creativity, and Teaching Effectiveness in University Professors." Scientometrics 5.2 (March 1983): 93-116.
Webster, David S. "Does Research Productivity Enhance Teaching?" Educational  Record 66.4 (Fall 1985): 60-62.

©2004 Nils Clausson
Prof. Nils Clausson teaches in the English Department at the University of Regina in Canada.

The IP comments: Prof. Clausson certainly is not the first person to raise the argument that there is no connection between a faculty member's research activity and his or her teaching effectiveness.  My own views on the subject are conditioned by my experience both as a teacher and a researcher in a predominantly undergraduate institution of higher education (PUI) as well as by my 10 years of experience as a department chair in that PUI.  Based on my experience, it my observation that there definitely is a positive relationship between teaching and research, but that it is a more subtle relationship than has been tested in the extant literature (including the literature that Nils cites).

First, in my role as a physics department Chair it was my responsibility to review all of the student evaluations of faculty members' teaching.  Also when I was department Chair I had the unenviable task of meeting with those students who were so unhappy about their instructor that they were willing to bring those complaints to me in person.  In addition, I also had the opportunity to speak with many of our alumni who had the opportunity to review their opinions of the effectiveness of their teachers after some time had intervened.  Almost without exception the teachers who generated the lowest overall student evaluations and the greatest number of student complaints were not currently active in research.  But at the same time, several of our part-time instructors who also did no research had very good to excellent teaching evaluations and generated no student complaints.

Nevertheless, the faculty members who consistently generated the best evaluations were faculty members who had active research programs.  Many of these faculty members also involved students in their research.  Not all faculty members involved in research had outstanding evaluations, but the majority had evaluations that were above average.  And, almost universally the faculty members who were remembered to be most effective by our alumni were those who had been active in research.

Nils raises a good point about the effectiveness of those who teach introductory classes.  Indeed, I personally have hired many part-time instructors to teach first- and second year physics classes; and, many of these people have been very effective instructors.  However, out of the scores of part-time and temporary instructors that I hired there were only a very few whom I would trust with the junior- and senior level physics courses.  The reason being that there are two bodies of knowledge in the sciences.  There is the body of knowledge contained in the textbooks, and there is the lore of the discipline that one learns only by being active in the field.  I suspect that in most academic disciplines, even in the teaching of poetry, there are some insights that a teacher gleans from being active in the field that one doesn't get from teaching alone.

Why then do the studies show that a faculty member's research activity and his or her teaching performance basically are uncorrelated (neither positively correlated nor negatively correlated)?  My best guess is that these studies have fundamental flaws.  After reading some of Nils' references as well as more recent work on the subject, I believe that most of these studies measure both teaching effectiveness and research activity incorrectly.  On the teaching effectiveness side, student evaluations of teaching often are the only measure used in those studies; and, on the research productivity side generally only numbers of publications are counted.  Neither of these data points really measure quality.  The student evaluations often are highly correlated with the grade that a student expects to receive rather than how much the student has learned.  Faculty members who are engaged in research often are demanding of themselves as well as their students, so that may skew their student evaluations.  Measuring research activity by the number of papers published tends to skew the results towards those faculty members who would view themselves primarily as researchers and teachers of graduate students rather than as teacher scholars who devote as much effort to their teaching as to their research.  In fact one of the correlations observed in the research is that those faculty members who publish the most often have less time available to devote to their teaching.

In the predominantly undergraduate institutions where research is encouraged but where teaching is considered the primary mission teaching effectiveness is an important part of the tenure and promotion process.  In my view it is only in those institutions where a true teacher scholar model can flourish.  And, it is in those institutions where a study of the correlations might be more revealing provided that realistic measures of both teaching quality and research quality can be devised.

Finally, I have a much different take than Nils on why faculty members -- particularly those who teach in PUI's -- engage in research.  It is because research keeps them alive intellectually!

(Note: The IP served for many year as a Councilor on The Council on Undergraduate Research, an organization committed to promoting high-quality collaborative research involving undergraduates and faculty members.)

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