Myth Conceptions of Academic
Work Once More by Ian Johnston
English and Liberal Studies
(Now Vanouver Island University)
[The following is the slightly revised
text of a paper delivered at Malaspina University-College in 1990 and
subsequently published in the Canadian Journal of Higher Education. This text is
in the public domain, released April 2000. For a follow-up article, written 10
years later, see “The Rage of Caliban,” available here]
The recent transformation of the
university-transfer curriculum in three community colleges in British Columbia
(in Malaspina College in Nanaimo, Okanagan College in Vernon, and Cariboo
College in Kamloops) from two-year to four-year degree BA programs has in the
past few months rekindled the old debate about the appropriate relationship
between academic research, publication, and teaching. Traditionally, faculty in
these community colleges have seen teaching as their main responsibility, and,
although each institution promotes professional development, there has been no
obligation for instructors to conduct original research or to publish. Now,
however, the addition of upper-division courses and the presence of the
sponsoring universities in discussions about hiring and curriculum planning are
placing considerable pressure on these colleges to alter their customary
priorities, so that faculty teaching in the upper-division programs organize
their working lives more along the same lines as the university professor, with
significantly more time devoted to research and publication and considerably
less to teaching.
This development has initiated some
important and sometimes contumacious discussions about the most appropriate role
for the instructor of undergraduates, and the arguments will presumably continue
for some time until an agreement is reached and codified in a new contract.
Clearly the issue is crucial to the colleges, for its resolution will determine
whether these new four-year programs become an important and long-overdue reform
in undergraduate education or whether they will simply perpetuate the erroneous
working principle which, more than any other single organizing factor, creates
serious problems for the undergraduate curriculum in our universities.
On the relationship between academic
research, publishing, and instruction, the official university stance has been
clear and firm for many years. Article 1 in the “Preamble Statement on
Academic Appointments and Tenure” in the CAUT Handbook (1971) declares:
“The essential functions of a university are the pursuit and dissemination of
knowledge and understanding through research and teaching.” And the
relationship between the two is even less ambiguous in the CAUT recommendations
to the federal and provincial governments (1987): “CAUT firmly believes that
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 graduate levels.”
Moreover, research, for all practical purposes, almost invariably requires
publication of articles in peer-reviewed academic journals, because, in the
words of Jencks and Riesman (1969), “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.” And so
one arrives at the orthodox university view: regular research and frequent
publication are essential to good undergraduate instruction because they keep
the professors up-to-date. Those who do not publish are not up-to-date and are,
therefore, unsatisfactory teachers.
So deeply rooted is this principle, that
it informs most of the relationship between universities and those colleges now
offering upper-division courses. University advisors tell prospective students
that programs are better at the university because college faculty are not
required to carry out research. And university departments involved with hiring
faculty for the colleges usually insist upon a record of publications and a
continuing commitment to research, on the ground that without research and
publication the instructor will not be competent. The assumption clearly is that
if one takes care of the research qualification, research activity, and
publication, then one has done all that is necessary to promote good
It takes no great familiarity with
doctoral programs or with the present state of academic research and publication
to recognize the enormously specialized work these require. So much so, in fact,
that the immediate connections between those activities and the demands of
instructing undergraduates are often by no means quite so obvious as the
orthodox assertions claim. Given this discrepancy, one is not surprised to
discover the chorus of counter-assertions, lamenting the deleterious effects on
the undergraduate program of the commitment to research and publication. This
phenomenon is nothing new, of course, but the extraordinary growth in the past
thirty years (at least) of the modern North American university as, among other
things, a very specialized research facility has given a new edge to the
complaints. In the words of Clark Kerr (1963), perhaps the best known defender
of the “multiversity”:
The reasons for the general
deterioration of undergraduate teaching are several. Teaching loads and student
contact hours have been reduced. Faculty members are more frequently on leave or
temporarily away from campus. More of the instruction falls to teachers who are
not members of the regular faculty. . . . There seems to be a “point of no
return” after which research, consulting, graduate instruction become so
absorbing that faculty efforts can no longer be concentrated in undergraduate
instruction as they once were. This process has been going on for a long time:
federal research funds have intensified it. As a consequence, undergraduate
education is more likely to be acceptable than outstanding; educational policy
from the undergraduate point of view is largely neglected. How to escape the
cruel paradox that a superior faculty results in an inferior concern for
undergraduate teaching is one of our more pressing problems.
Kerr's words appeared more than
twenty-five years ago, but his interesting connection between “superior”
faculty and “an inferior concern for undergraduate teaching” is worth
remembering in the context of our present discussions. For to judge from a
number of recent books and articles on the same subject, the problem has grown
much more acute. For Paul Von Blum (1986), a teacher for many years in the
University of California, Kerr's “cruel paradox” has become “one of the
most brutal ironies of university life . . . [the] recognition that to develop a
reputation as an excellent teacher is professionally disadvantageous and
dangerous.” Von Blum sees this development as a natural consequence of a
system which, whatever the official policies may be, has, in practice, failed to
effect any creative union between teaching and research and which has constantly
over-valued very specialized research and publication as the sole means for
professional advancement. The president of Mount Saint Vincent University in
Halifax, E. Margaret Fulton (1985) echoes Von Blum's point: “Research and
publication as a precondition of promotion through our vertical rank structure
has worked to replace the genuinely educated professor with the educational
entrepreneur, the academic gamesperson.” In less temperate language Charles J.
Sykes (1988) unloads a mountain of detail in support of his contention that the
research environment in the modern university is not only bad for teaching but
actively hostile to it. And the Report of the Royal Commission on Post-Secondary
Education in Nova Scotia (1985), among its many pertinent observations, calls
attention to the fact that “in some departments, teaching and research . . .
are regarded as antithetical. . . . The Commission feels that universities will
be doing a disservice to their students and the community if they continue to
permit basic research and development to be emphasized at the expense of
teaching and scholarship.”
The situation is grave enough to prompt
even an ex-editor of PMLA to complain about “scholars who are frequently so
narrow in their studies and specialized in their scholarship that they are
simply incapable of teaching undergraduate introductory courses” (Schaefer,
1990). Many analysts of post-secondary education, Kerr and Von Blum among them,
have pointed out, too, how the demands of academic specialization have eroded
the sense of the professors' responsibilities to the students, the department,
and the university. For now the centres of the professor's working life are the
journals in which his or her articles appear, the relatively small group of
academics scattered across the continent who share the same often very narrow
interests and an increasingly difficult and specialized language, and the
conferences where they meet. These have become the most important realities of
the professor's life, on which decisions about hiring, tenure, and promotion are
based. As Cude (1988) observes, the professor's job is now a matter of
“research opportunities” and “teaching loads.” Officially, the
university may worry about the quality of instruction and may in ringing policy
statements endorse the importance of good teaching, but, in practice, the system
rests very firmly on the central importance of research publication as the
essential requirement. Those professors who do want to devote more time and
energy to teaching, Peters and Mayfield (1982) suggest, have to participate in a
system which induces “intellectual schizophrenia which encourages improvement
in teaching but fails to reward it,” a system which strongly resists any
attempts to change things (Winkler, 1987).
In addition to the significant number of
articles and books expressing personal dissatisfaction with the present emphasis
on research, many empirical studies in the last twenty years indicate
conclusively that the claims about the creative links between academic research,
publication, and teaching have no basis in fact. Rushton, Murray, and Paunonen
(1983) make the 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 the point: “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 conclusion
reached by every reliable study of this matter in the past thirty years: there
is no evidence whatsoever to support the view that academic research and
publication have a beneficial effect upon instruction.
Now, there is an important and
inescapable irony in all this. For those defending the orthodox university
position on the important connections between research, publication, and
teaching rest their case on the idea that a demonstrated and informed expertise
guarantees intellectual and pedagogical excellence, since it requires a
commitment to basing one's understanding and opinions on reliable and up-to-date
empirical evidence. But the claim obviously displays no great familiarity with
consistent research evidence, much of which has been available for years,
demonstrating that such a claim is quite ungrounded. Thus the claim about the
fruitful interconnections between research and teaching begins to appear as an
article of faith, a reflex defense of the academic status quo, rather than as an
informed conclusion based upon the best available results of creditable
research. Even if one argues that the variables are very complex, especially in
evaluations of the quality of instruction, and, therefore, that we need more
detailed studies of this issue, that does not mean that we should therefore
accept as true the confident assertions about the importance of research and
publication for excellent instruction or that we must make that dubious
principle the most important element in establishing appropriate workloads. In
fact, the remarkable lack of evidence in support of that claim should encourage
us to bring to it a very large degree of skepticism and remind those making the
claim that the onus is on them to substantiate their assertions.
All of this is well known, and yet,
except for the occasional exhortation that we should abandon the very narrow
definition of research and publication and replace it with something a great
deal more flexible, like service (Martin, 1977), scholarship (Royal Commission,
1985), vitality (Baldwin, 1990), or professional development (the expression
common to colleges), the university professoriate in general continues
vigorously to endorse the orthodox idea of an important interrelationship
between research and teaching and to use it as the basic working principle in
present decisions about hiring, tenure, and promotion, and in future planning.
Indeed, the characteristic response in the universities to the growing crisis in
undergraduate education stresses more than anything else the need for a more
energetic recommitment (with more money and time) to research. Significantly,
the CAUT position mentioned earlier about the fertile relationship between
research and teaching was part of a plea for increased research funding.
A number of those who have examined this
issue, Neill (1989) and Webster (1985) among others, have raised the obvious
question: Why does the university cling to this idea in the face of so much
evidence to the contrary? And the answer is clear enough: university professors
have to believe that research has an integral connection with good teaching in
order to justify to themselves and the public the structure of the workload.
Only if we accept the fact that research and publication are a necessary part of
excellent instruction can we then properly defend such a generous allocation of
time and money for these activities to those responsible for teaching in
institutions in which well over ninety percent of the full-time students are
undergraduates (Education in Canada, 1989). For no matter how valuable some of
the research endeavour in our universities may be, it is certainly not possible
any longer (if it ever was) to defend the vast majority of research publications
as important and original contributions to knowledge, so vital that we are
willing increasingly to sacrifice the quality of the undergraduate program in
order to foster the activities which produce them.
The orthodox views about the importance
of research and publication are so firmly entrenched in the university that no
professor can afford to ignore them. We may have increasing doubts about the
coherence and purpose of much what goes on in the university, but those inside
commit their energies to publishing because that is the basic rule of the
profession. We teach graduate students the principle, we hire and promote
faculty on the basis of their research qualifications and activities, and we
continue to fret about teaching, without doing very much to change the faculty's
attitude to it (Botman and Gregor, 1984). The arduous apprenticeship, which
requires years and years of faithful adherence to the central principle of the
profession, weeds out many of those who find the order of priorities
distasteful. In this connection, it is worth noting that the study by Rushton,
Murray, and Paunonen (1983) indicated that the personality traits of teachers
and of researchers appear to display “substantial heritabilities.” In other
words, the characteristics of these two types manifest themselves at an early
age and endure. The researchers observed: “It is as likely that people
selectively choose their academic niches as it is that they are shaped by
them.” So we should perhaps not be all that surprised to find that even
rigorously trained academics, no matter what the evidence, accept as true those
assumptions which have been the basis of their successful training and which
have given them their coveted appointments. After all, to use a homely analogy,
if we hire and promote major league hockey coaches solely on the basis of their
knowledge of and their continuing research into the history of the game, the
tensile properties of rubber, or the heat of fusion of arena ice, we can
probably expect certain problems with the quality of the team play, but it's
unlikely we will receive many official complaints from the coaches' union about
the training, selection, and promotion of its members, especially when the
coaches themselves have a monopoly on and a huge financial stake in the
education and hiring of new recruits to their ranks.
In the present climate of crisis in our
universities, we hear many suggestions for reform. Nothing so far, however, has
prompted any serious challenge from within to the central issue: the basic
nature of the professor's work. Indeed, as the sense of trouble gets
increasingly urgent, the pressure on faculty to conduct research intensifies,
since now an important criterion in hiring and promotion is the amount of cash a
professor brings along to fund a research team. The full-time faculty respond to
the problems in the undergraduate curriculum by placing more and more of the
responsibility for it in the hands of underpaid and overworked sessionals (Dassas,
1990) and by stressing the need for more research money. And the present odd
tendency among many institutions, the University of Montreal, for example, to
seek to transform themselves into upscale versions of the major research
universities south of the border simply exacerbates the problems of teaching
If from within the universities the
prospects for significant reforms of the professors' role are very dim, then our
best hope for some challenge to the central faith in the importance of research
and publishing rests on the creation of different institutions. The new
undergraduate curriculums in the three British Columbia colleges, therefore,
represent an important opportunity to develop degree-granting programs in which
excellent teaching is without reservation the most important responsibility of
the faculty. If these colleges can maintain their commitment to that principle
and not compromise it by importing the orthodox creed of the university
professor, then these institutions may well initiate the most important reforms
in post-secondary education in many decades. These colleges are clearly in an
excellent position to carry out such a reform, because, unlike many
universities, they have no clear mandate to carry out research as an activity
separate from teaching.
That task will not, however, be easy.
The sponsoring universities are keeping a very close watch on what is going on
in these three colleges (naturally enough, since the universities will be
granting the degrees), and already the pressure for conventional university
qualification, workloads, and research activities is strong. Moreover, the
significant increase in hiring is changing the nature of the college faculty and
bringing more expectations for a conventional university working life, since
many of the new instructors come directly from graduate school or from
non-tenured university posts. So it remains to be seen whether or not these
colleges will realize the important potential this opportunity provides.
One can only hope that those responsible
for developing the college curriculum, the faculty workloads, and the
contractual provisions for professional development will successfully resist
those pressures to conform to the orthodox university ethic. If they contemplate
the evidence more closely than their university colleagues and organize their
work accordingly, they might just set an important example from which the rest
of the country can really benefit. If they do not, then we shall have lost a
very important chance to address the most significant factor in what is
increasingly emerging as a major educational problem, the declining quality of
our undergraduate programs.
Baldwin, Roger G.
“Faculty Vitality Beyond the Research University: Extending a Contextual
Concept.” Journal of Higher Education 61.2 (March/April 1990): 160-180.
Blum, Paul Von. Stillborn
Education: A Critique of the American Research University. Lanham:
University Press of America, 1986.
Botman, Elizabeth S.
and Alexander D. Gregor. “Faculty Participation in Teaching Improvement
Programs.” The Canadian Journal of Higher Education 14.2 (1984): 63-73.
Ed. Donald G. Savage. Ottawa: Canadian Association of University Teachers, 1971.
Recommendations to the Government of Canada.” CAUT Bulletin 34.9
(November 1987): 2.
Cude, Wilfred. The
Ph.D. Trap. West Bay, Nova Scotia: Medicine Label Press, 1987.
“The Thorny Problem of Sessionals.” CAUT Bulletin 37.2 (February
Education in Canada:
A Statistical Review for 1987-1988. Minister of Supply
and Services. Ottawa, 1989.
“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.
Fulton, E. Margaret.
“Historical Commitments in New Times--Teaching and Research: Restructuring and
Reorientation.” The University into the 21st Century: An International
Conference on Social and Technological Change. Victoria: University of
Victoria, 1985: 293-304.
and David Riesman. The Academic Revolution. Garden City: Doubleday
Kerr, Clark. The
Uses of the University. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1963.
Martin, Warren Bryan,
ed. Redefining Service, Research, and Teaching. New Directions for Higher
Education No. 18 (Summer 1977). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1977.
Neill, S. D.
“Researcher/Teacher: Is There a Link?” University of Western Ontario
Alumni Gazette (Winter, 1985): 32.
Significant Relationship Between Research and Teaching, Research Reveals.” University
Affairs 30.4 (April 1989): 18.
Peters, Dianne S. and
J. Robert Mayfield. “Are There Any Rewards for Teaching?” Improving
College & University Teaching 30.3 (Summer 1982), 105-114.
Report of the Royal
Commission on Post-Secondary Education. By Rod J. MacLennan,
Joan Gregson Evans, and William S. Shaw. Halifax: Province of Nova Scotia, 1985.
Rushton, J. P., H. G.
Murray, and S. V. Paunonen. “Personality, Research Creativity, and Teaching
Effectiveness in University Professors.” Scientometrics 5.2 (March
Schaefer, William D. Without
Compromise: From Chaos to Coherence in Higher Education. San Francisco:
Jossey-Bass, 1990. Quote taken from a portion of the book published in Chronicle
of Higher Education 36.25 (March 7, 1990): B3.
Sykes, Charles J. Profscam:
Professors and the Demise of Higher Education. Washington: Regnery Gateway,
Webster, David S.
“Does Research Productivity Enhance Teaching?” Educational Record
66.4 (Fall 1985): 60-62.
Winkler, Karen J.
“Interdisciplinary Research: How Big a Challenge to Traditional Fields?” Chronicle
of Higher Education 34.6 (October 7, 1987): A1+.