Sometimes people ask me: “what would I change in higher education, if I could”? My answer varies, but right now my fondest wish is for everyone to just cut the BS around the teaching/research balance.
Whenever a debate on teaching and research starts, there’s always people who either intimate how “unfortunate” it is that we have to talk about trade-offs, or people who claim that any deviation from the current trade-off means the death of the academic. But this is nonsense. There are only twenty-four hours in a day; trade-offs between teaching and research are always being made. The issue is not teaching v. research, but where the balance is. Twenty-five years ago, it was perfectly normal for professors to teach five courses a year. Now, even at mid-ranking comprehensives, the idea of 3/2 is enough to cause paroxysms. Just because it’s a good idea for professors to combine research and teaching doesn’t mean that any specific combination of research and teaching is right.
Even if we take it as read that, “engagement with research” makes you a better teacher (something which is much less empirically established than many assume), it’s clearly not equally the case in all disciplines. Researchers in some disciplines – Physics and Math come to mind – are so far removed from the understanding of your average undergraduate that it’s probably a waste of everyone’s time to put them together in a classroom. Conversely, language courses are almost never taught by people engaging in research on language acquisition, because it’s unnecessary. Indeed, first and second year courses in many disciplines probably don’t even need researchers teaching them – a fact institutions acknowledge every day because they keep handing them to non-tenure track faculty.
Over the past 25 years, teaching norms at large universities went from five courses per year to four, to even three; that is, full-time teaching time went down by 20-40%. The academy did this without ever engaging the public about whether that was the right way to spend public and student dollars. It’s therefore worth debating, in light of current fiscal pressures, whether the current (historically unprecedented) trade-off between research and teaching is the right one. We once had good research universities with many professors teaching five courses a year; there’s no reason we couldn’t do so again. Shutting discussions down – as CAUT Executive Director, Jim Turk, recently did – by equating any change in the balance as an attempt to turn universities into high school isn’t just unhelpful and obnoxious: it’s BS.
And so I say: no more BS. Let’s all be grownups and talk reasonably about what balance makes sense, not just for professors, but for students and the public as well.