Saturday, March 11, 2006

The World Turned Upside Down

I read this on a list-serve for engineering professors, but its strikes a good chord for all professors. When I was in band back in H.S., I used to imagine writing a screen-play where it was the band members who were the popular kids in school while the athletes would be the geeks. I figure that idea was, in part, just sour grapes about the way society worked. But there is something appealing about speculating how the world (or if the world) would be different if certain standards were turned on their head.


Imagine, if you can, an academic universe in which the roles of teaching and research have been suddenly and magically reversed.

Faculty members emerge from the library or laboratory and heave a sigh of relief: "Thank goodness I've finished all my research for this year! Now I can get on with my real work!" Rushing back to the classroom, they throw themselves with relish into the job they have trained to do through years of graduate study, the labor for which they are recognized and rewarded by their peers and their institutions: the "real work" of teaching.

Committed research scholars, meanwhile, profess frustration at the inequities of the system, but their complaints fall on deaf ears. Indeed, their excessive attention to research is secretly regarded by their peers as a sign of intellectual deficiency. "If so-and-so were a truly talented teacher," colleagues mutter to one another at cocktail parties, "s/he wouldn't waste so much time and energy on research." Newly hired faculty who want to pursue cutting-edge research methodologies are actively discouraged by their department Chairs, who urge them to focus on their teaching instead: "You have to think about your career, you know!"

When asked by administrators and promotion committees to develop measures for demonstrating research competence, faculty rise up in anger. "How can anyone really measure or evaluate good research?" they demand. "Research is a private matter, a matter of personal style." These same scholars have no qualms, needless to say, about subjecting their teaching to collegial scrutiny and rigorous peer review. Indeed, they love to fly off to far-flung conferences where they can engage in lively disciplinary debates with teaching colleagues from around the world, leaving behind the drudgery of their research obligations.

Top universities maintain their international stature by offering generous funding for innovative teachers, with additional support from government and industry sources. Academic units devoted to the promotion of research excellence, by contrast, remain consistently underfunded and understaffed. University administrators do pay a certain amount of lip service to the importance of supporting stellar researchers; but under their breaths, they all recite the same mantra: "This is a teaching university!"

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