Doctor Cleveland's picture

    Why Should Professors Do Research?

    My high school physics teacher was a fraud. He claimed to have two PhDs, but had no graduate degree of any kind and as I understand it didn't even have a BA in physics. He left in a sudden flurry a couple of months before the end of my senior year.

    Unlike our history teacher who really did have a doctorate, the physics teacher insisted that we call him "Doctor" and liked to digress in class about how they had done things in various private-sector labs where he had never actually been. (The history teacher was addressed as "Mister" and only displayed his education through his enormous knowledge of history.) And while the physics teacher was absolutely lousy at teaching, this was somehow considered a point in his favor. He performed the stereotypical role of the woolly intellectual too caught up in his complicated, difficult ideas to explain them for mere mortals. If you didn't understand him, that was a sign that you weren't as smart as he was. Poor Dr. Fraudster, we would say. He's obviously a brilliant man. He just can't teach.

    In fact, he couldn't teach because he didn't know any physics. He had the textbook and an answer key for the homework questions. That was basically it. The one time I approached him for help, he just repeated the sentence in the textbook that I'd asked about, twice, and stared at me like I was an idiot. That cured me of asking for help. But his show of contempt was to conceal his ignorance. He did not explain that physics concept to me in other words because he could not. He did not understand it well enough.

    I think about Dr. Fraudster sometimes, when people complain that university teachers do too much research. The problem wasn't that Dr. Fraudster had focused too much on research; he'd never done any in his life. That was why he was such a lousy teacher.

    Yes, every college teacher does know a few co-workers who are better in the lab or the library than they are in the classroom. Understanding the material is not enough to teach it effectively. But if you don't understand the the material, all of your other teaching skills are useless. You can't teach what you don't know. And to teach something well you need to know more than the material you want the students to learn.

    Just knowing the material in the lesson plan itself won't cut it. If your knowledge is shallow, your other teaching skills are crippled. It's not just that I can't go over to my university's math department and take over a class on math that I don't know how to do. I also couldn't be effective teaching high school geometry, which I "know" in the sense that I can solve the problems. Knowing how to do it well enough to get an A in the class isn't enough to teach it. My fraud of a physics teacher was capable of solving the homework problems and doing the labs. It wasn't enough. I also know how to cook a nice dinner, but not enough to teach a cooking class.

    Lots of people think about teaching as content delivery. There's some information, and the teacher tells it to the students. But that's not how it happens in reality. In the information-delivery model, a student who'd learned the lesson should be able to turn around and teach it to someone else immediately, but it turns out that they can't. And if teaching were really just delivering content, there would be little need for teachers at all. Books have been delivering content very efficiently for a couple of millennia now. But just giving students the textbook has never worked.

    If you imagine teaching not as delivering information but as helping students understand information, it requires the teacher to understand so thoroughly that they are completely at ease with the material. And if you imagine teaching as teaching the students skills (how to write an argument, do a statistical analysis, use primary historical documents), it works best when the teacher has already practiced those skills until they are second nature.

    When a teacher knows the subject in depth, she (or he) has many different ways to get it across to the students and can choose between different approaches. It's like knowing your way around a city, instead of just knowing a single route between two places in that city; you know how all the different roads and avenues are connected, and you're free to move around. You can take short-cuts; you can give your passengers the scenic route. And if the route you were planning to take is blocked for some reason, you can find another way without floundering around. Depth of knowledge also helps the teacher understand which parts of the lesson are important for work the students will need to do in later classes.

    This kind of in-depth knowledge of the subject matter has to be maintained. And this is where research comes into college teaching. If you buy into the information-delivery model, research just seems like a waste of time. You went to school and learned some things and now you will tell your students those things. But in the real world, your knowledge of a subject degrades over time if you don't keep studying it. You forget things. You simplify things and oversimplify them. Your range decreases, as you stop thinking about parts of the field that aren't covered in the courses you happen to teach, and your knowledge becomes shallower, because you never think about anything except what's in the lesson plan and because you never talk about your subject with anyone but a student. You're never challenged. You never have to stretch. And so your knowledge very gradually shrinks and weakens, until you become that guy who's been lecturing from the same notes for decades and no longer dares to deviate from them because it's been years since you worked on or read about or thought about anything except delivering those notes. You've become a sixth-or-seventh generation photocopy of the scholar you used to be. If you don't keep learning the subject you teach, you will lose your ability to teach it well.

    Research is how university teachers keep learning their subject. If you think of it as "continued learning," its relationship to teaching becomes clear. It's true that most faculty's research projects don't (and shouldn't) have much obvious bearing on the material covered in their classes. Of course not: research projects are advanced work, which also means they have to be fairly focused, while undergraduate classes are much more elementary and more general. (An undergraduate class on a topic as specialized as the professor's current research project would almost always be ridiculous. But a research project with the same topic of an undergraduate class would be pointless. Rest assured that my next book will not be "British Literature from 600 to 1800 AD.") The point isn't that the professor necessarily walks into class and tells everyone about the documents she was reading in special collections yesterday.  The point is that she keeps practicing the skills she's teaching. Do you want to learn history from someone who's a working historian, or do you want to learn history from someone who took some classes in the 1980s and is willing to tell you about them? More to the point, do you want advice on how to write a history paper from someone who actually writes about history or someone who doesn't?

    As I've admitted before, I have two graduate degrees in different but related fields. I haven't done any sustained work in one of those fields for years, but do work steadily in the other. And I am no longer qualified to teach in the field I don't work in, although I have occasionally taken over a beginner's class as an emergency substitute. I'm perfectly qualified on paper. I have an advanced degree! I have publications! I've taught classes in this field before. But I know that I should not be teaching those classes. My publications in that field are from the Clinton Administration. I'm rusty. I don't pay attention to everything new happening in that field. And because I don't produce any work in that field anymore, I don't think hard about it. I don't have to. The truth is, you can only really think about a subject in such a hard and sustained way if the project that you're working on makes you, and I no longer have a project. I can't teach that subject nearly as well as I can teach the subject I work on, although I bring the same classroom communication skills with me. One subject is no longer as clear or sharp in my mind as the other.

    Would the students realize why I was less of a teacher? Probably not. I'm perfectly good at projecting my classroom authority, just like Dr. Fraudster was. There are college professors who are revered by their students because they, like Dr. Fraudster, play the Grand Old Man so well that the students presume they must be very accomplished. Sometimes they are, and sometimes it's a big, tweedy bluff. Dr. Fraudster was a champion bluffer. But research keeps you from bluffing in that way. Teachers who never research spend all of their working time talking about a subject they know well, or used to, to people who know very little about it. Researchers have to spend some of their time talking to other experts, who know the subject as well or better. You don't get to be an unquestioned authority. You have to face the fact that you could be wrong. It's always healthy to be reminded.

    A university where faculty weren't judged on their research would be like earlier versions of the American university, where the faculty's authority was based on how cultured and classy they seemed. Basically, what we would go back to would be Dr. Fraudster's paradise, where seeming learned and intellectual was all it took, and professors never had to submit their intellectual work to the embarrassment of any test. I'd get along fine under that system: I'm a tweedy white dude with a big vocabulary and degrees from fancy schools. But I don't want any part of it. I don't want to be Dr. Fraudster's peer, and don't want to be judged on his standards. I'd rather keep sending my research into the world, where there are other people more than happy to tell me how wrong I am. The humility is good for me, and good for my teaching too.


    There was a professor at the U back in the 60's and everybody, I mean everybody loved this guy. And he refused to finally take his orals.

    If I recall he had two or three MA's. He just did not give a damn!

    Humanities was his class if I recall correctly.

    But what got to me today was a segment on CNN about a Florida professor who had his own blog and was claiming that the Sandy elementary school massacre was a fake.

    It brought to mind a number of strange thoughts I have had recently; where I despair that there is no truth whatsoever.

    I am a UFO afficianado but I do not consider myself a UFO nut. But in all of these documentaries you will witness physics professors and NASA experts and...

    And they will tell you about the truth that THEY ARE WITH US!

    And there are anthropologists with real doctorates who do splendid jobs demonstrating that 'messages' from ancient aliens are all around us.

    But the bad side of this coin is that there are 'experts' who will tell us that the killing of  20 babies and 7 teachers was 'staged' so that the Obama Tyrant can take all our guns away.

    And there are meteorologists who will claim that there is no such thing as climate change; not that humans could not be involved or that there is nothing we can do about this situation; BUT THAT THERE HAS BEEN NO CLIMATE CHANGE.

    And there are economists who diss any thought that there has been an attempt by multi billion dollar corporations to lower the standard of living for 80% of Americans.

    I can go on and on.

    This subject really bothers me.

    It is like life is just a bad version of WHO DO YOU TRUST!

    Which one is telling the TRUTH?

    There are about 21 major world religions today. About 1 billion people do not profess belief in any religion.
    1. Christianity 2.1 billion
    2. Islam 1.3 billion
    3. Secular/Irreligious/Agnostic/Atheist 1.1 billion
    4. Hinduism 900 million
    5. Chinese traditional religion 394 million
    6. Buddhism 376 million (see also buddhism by country)
    7. Primal indigenous 300 million
    8. African traditional and diasporic 100 million
    9. Sikhism 23 million
    10. Juche 19 million
    11. Spiritism 15 million
    12. Judaism 14 million
    13. Bahá'í Faith 7 million
    14. Jainism 4.2 million
    15. Shinto 4 million
    16. Cao Dai 4 million
    17. Zoroastrianism 2.6 million
    18. Tenrikyo 2 million
    19. Neopaganism 1 million
    20. Unitarian Universalism 800,000
    21. Rastafari movement 600,000

    I've known a few Dr. Fraudsters in my day. I took a business class with one of them when I was still young enough where I might have been swayed by his bluster, but even then I knew I was in the presence of someone who shouldn't have been getting paid for that little gig.  Our entire class took up a petition to get rid of him, as it was clear we were learning absolutely nothing from his "Socratic teaching methods". (His interpretation:  answering a question with a question, thereby never having to give a real answer.  Because, obviously, he didn't know the answer.)

    He would announce an upcoming test and we would study the chapter (without much classroom discussion, of course), but the test would be on the next chapter--the one we hadn't studied yet.  And when we complained, he would tell us we had to be prepared for everything.  He was a mess, but as far as I know he went on to "teach" some more.

    Doc, I would have loved to have been in any one of your classes, and I'm proud to know you now.  I love that you love what you're doing and that you care enough about your students to work at doing it well. 

    Great piece, as always.


    Thanks, Ramona.

    I don't dispute the value of research in teaching, but I think sometimes for the very basic classes it's easy for many teachers (but not all) to find the basics so intuitive as to have a hard time teaching. This is one reason why TAs (graduate and undergraduate) can be very helpful. I found myself helping CS 201 students who were having a hard time grasping the basics of a for loop. As I had taught myself how to use for loops in elementary school from my dad's basic user group (BUG) magazines, trying to teach this to young adults was very difficult to me because I genuinely couldn't understand how they found it confusing. I tried very hard not to sound condescending, but I cannot be certain that I was successful. (I also found myself wondering what they had been taught in CS 101!) The point is that sometimes you want students helping other students (which I know you're not really disputing) exactly because they're struggling with the same problems, and sometimes you want the professor who can answer the deep questions of understanding who can help put theory and practice together.

    I'm not sure I agree with Verified Atheist about the value of students teaching basics instead of more advanced scholars.  If one looks at a very intriguing study done at the Air Force Academy (which has the advantage of a standardized curriculum and series of exams) the most experienced teachers of basics produced more long-term benefit for students:  The basics are important to get absolutely right, so in some ways the best instruction is required there, and the deepest understanding. 


    When I was teaching math, I remember the easy part was teaching students how to do things right -- any book or lecture (we were pre - Youtube) could do that.  The hard part was teaching them how not to do it wrong: to see where they were having trouble, figuring out what they were thinking, and trying to get them to recognize how it was wrong so they would know how to shift away to correct approaches -- and while there were only a few ways of being right, there were myriad ways of being wrong.  That's where face-to-face teaching comes in, with a teacher who thinks like a researcher -- in terms of a process of dealing with mistakes until something becomes right -- rather than a teacher who thinks in terms of passing on information, and thinks the job is done when the lecture is finished.


    You make a good point, but what I'm really advocating is to combine both modes of teaching, both from the expert who knows the theory inside-and-out, and from the student who has just recently grasped the concept herself. Just as students benefit from different modes of teaching, I think that students benefit from being taught by different levels of teacher.

    I'm finding this sub-thread illuminating and helpful.

    My concern with universities is not that they require professors to research. It's that they hire professors almost exclusively for research.

    I went to a liberal arts college that valued teaching. Student evaluations were seriously considered during the tenure process. Professors who were a little light on research could make up for it with great teaching. Professors who absolutely could not teach were not tolerated. That seemed like a reasonable balance to me.

    In grad school, it was very different. I was a teaching assistant for a large lecture course. I knew little about the subject, and my entire teaching preparation consisted of a single four-hour instruction course. Nonetheless, I was a better teacher than the professor, who droned on in dull, academic jargon for an hour while the students sat glassy-eyed and uncomprehending. By the end of the course, lecture attendance had plummeted. Students were learning the material exclusively from the T/As.

    And the problem was that it did not matter. This professor was not yet tenured, but her teaching ability was not a serious factor in her evaluation. All that mattered were how many articles she'd published in which prestigious journals.

    So I completely support your commonsense approach to valuing research as an essential component of teaching. But I wonder how many in academia, or at least in the university system, share it.

    It's true that major research universities, such as the one where you were a TA, do often neglect teaching. I am not arguing in favor of that. Research is necessary, but not sufficient, for good teaching.

    High-profile universities favor research to excess because it creates prestige, which is a university's primary currency, and because research is much easier to evaluate than teaching. And, to be fair, there are people who are fabulous graduate teachers and not much as gen-ed-auditorium lecturers, just as there are people for whom it's the other way around.

    That said, it's harder to get away with crappy teaching outside the big leagues. You can be turned down for tenure for teaching poorly. I know, but cannot comment on, more than one specific case, from a number of different schools across the spectrum. (Let's say, across the whole range of schools except the very top.)

    I'd also say that my undergraduate experience at a big, fancy research university did feature some high-powered research faculty who were wonderful teachers, such as the person I've blogged about as "Professor V.", and some TAs who were mediocre or worse, including at least one arrogant bluffer. Luck of the draw. But then, my TAs were also selected by their grad programs for their future research potential, just like you were. And the talented TAs I met, like you, were still deeply engaged in learning their fields.

    My experience is pretty limited--I wasn't sufficient engaged in my field to stick it out--so I defer to your knowledge. Among the mid-tier universities and liberal arts colleges, which would you say is more important for tenure, research or teaching?

    Well, the mid-tier covers a lot of ground, and mid-tier universities often operate differently than mid-tier liberal-arts colleges. So my instinct is to give you an answer short of variables and short on bottom-line answers.

    The short answer is that almost no place will tenure anybody who is not a good enough teacher. Every institution sets the bar for "good enough" at a different place. (Actually, different colleges and departments within a school might have different practical standards.)

    And most places have relatively light research expectations for tenure; not nearly as light as fifty years ago, but  achievable. There are places where you can get tenure in the humanities or social sciences with two articles. (And since the employment market is so tight that most grad students need to publish an article before getting a job, there are people who enter a job halfway to clearing the bar for the research side.) And if you do just enough research to get tenure and then teach your three or four classes a semester without publishing again, there are plenty of schools that will be okay with that.

    The problem is that there is no serious avenue for career advancement through teaching alone. If you're really stinking up the joint as a teacher, your research probably won't be enough to save you. Teaching well (or well enough) is a minimal career requirement. But even teaching brilliantly won't get you past associate professor. If you want to get promoted, or get a real raise, or change jobs, then it's either your research or your administrative skills that will make that happen.

    This makes me wonder about the value of research (and research takes time and independence) in other fields.  For example, mine.  I'm a former journalist, working in marketing.  I was hired because I had built up knowledge of the industry, but as I approach 3 years I realize that I don't really know anything about marketing.  Given 3 months to do the proper research, I could do a much better job going forward.  Granted, it isn't rocket science.  But there is information out there that I don't have time to absorb, much less analyze and organize, during the course of my workday.

    Yes, I think there's a nearly-universal set of trade-offs between workplace "efficiency" and worker development. Of course, setting aside some of your week for work that doesn't directly affect the bottom line, but does improve your bottom-line work, comes at a cost. And different workplaces, different career paths, balance those needs differently.

    Some jobs build in a fair amount of what I'd call "sabbatical time." I understand that Google has, in the past, allowed some of its engineers to work on whatever project they want on Fridays, while working on their assigned projects the other days. And of course, there are jobs where it's nothing but a daily grind. For college faculty, the hierarchy of desirable jobs is heavily correlated to how much development time one gets.

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