Research vs. Teaching

Research vs. Teaching

By Jan Cohn,
G. Keith Funston Professor of American Literature and American Studies

Is it possible to say anything new with regard to this old, old debate? Probably not to my debate-wearied colleagues. Maybe to a wider audience? But even to get this discussion off the ground, it's necessary to examine two fundamental issues. The first is the wide range of colleges and universities in the United States. Since an essay in the Reporter on the research/teaching question has to do specifically with Trinity College, it's critical to locate Trinity precisely along that spectrum of postsecondary educational institutions. The second-- and even more fundamental --issue is one of definition: what is "research"? what is "teaching"? and what does that "vs." standing in between them mean?

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Higher education in the United States is a mega-business. It is also a powerful social institution, serving very different kinds of students and providing very different kinds of services. At one end of the continuum of postsecondary institutions lies the "research university," a term that itself includes a range of universities, both private and public, from Harvard and Yale to major state and urban schools like the University of Wisconsin and the University of Pittsburgh. As the term suggests, a research university defines itself in terms of scholarship and scholarly output. Teaching loads are low, no more than two courses a term, with one of them often being a graduate course. Teaching obligations, however, by no means define workload. Professors at these schools take on a significant number of doctoral students, guiding their research and directing their dissertations.

Undergraduate education, indeed the makeup of the undergraduate body, at research institutions is itself various. Some private research universities, Harvard and Yale for example, admit exceptional undergraduates. Public research universities, Wisconsin and Pittsburgh for example, provide at least local students with partially state-supported subsidies; in turn, they are often required to admit local students who are far from exceptional. The differences in student bodies, however, does not necessarily lead to different kinds of undergraduate, or at least lower division, teaching; in both kinds of research universities graduate students are themselves subsidized by undertaking a good deal of the teaching of introductory courses. Whether this is or is not a satisfactory way of providing undergraduate education is a hotly argued question. But there is no question that it serves the ends to which a research university is primarily dedicated: the production of new knowledge and the production of new professors.

At the farthest reach from the research university is the two-year college, often a community college. The mission of the two-year college is to provide a basic, lower division (freshman and sophomore level) education, and in some cases to fuse this with training in a marketable skill. Teaching loads are high in two-year colleges; often five and sometimes even six courses a term. While these schools may hire part-time faculty, adjuncts, in order to reduce costs, there is no in-house body of graduate students to assume any of the teaching burden. And research, scholarly work on the part of the faculty, is not a stated goal, though I have known a few remarkable men and women who have written articles and even books despite the crushing teaching load.

Between the research university and the two-year college there is plenty of room for other varieties of educational institutions, from the regional university to the small denominational college, and of course for liberal arts colleges like Trinity. Even among the liberal arts colleges there are differences and divides, tiers and rankings. Trinity is among the premier liberal arts colleges, a set of schools itself tiered and ranked as we know all too well from the annual issue of U.S. News & World Report. Still, rankings aside, Trinity stands as one of an elite group of colleges, and that set of colleges--like the research university and the two-year college--has its own goals in terms of research and teaching.

In order to understand those goals, it's important to recognize the changes that have taken place over the past half-century in higher education and, more specifically, at colleges like Trinity. I'm very close to being an eyewitness to that half-century, having entered Wellesley College in 1951. At that time any scholarly work done by our professors was obscure to us, even obscured from us. The faculty were addressed by the titles of "Miss" and "Mr." (I don't recall any "Mrs.") The teaching load was an unimaginable five courses a semester. Almost all of the teaching fell to the tenured or tenure-track faculty except for a few courses given by local graduate students, mostly from Harvard. It wasn't until I went on to graduate school myself that I learned that a number of the women who had taught English and American literature to me were scholars, were indeed famous scholars.

I'm sure that the Wellesley I recall is very much like the Trinity many alumni (masculine form intended; we are talking about the olden days!) remember themselves. But were these the good old days? Well, of course there is a good deal of nostalgia for me in recalling a number of my courses and professors, but the kind of world in which women, and a few men, could handle five courses and still produce research is not the kind of world I would want to return to. For the faculty, if not for the students, this was a cloistered world. Work was all-consuming; even families were rare and were, in fact, for men only.

Nostalgic or not, those days are gone, vanished in the growth of higher education that began after World War II and in the burgeoning of graduate education in the 1960s. The women's movement played its part as well by bringing more women into higher education, including married women. Two-career families became more the norm, and since proximity and mutual interests encouraged marriages between graduate students, two-career families often meant two-professor families. The insularity, the self-contained world, of the teacher-scholar disappeared.

And then the job market in higher education tightened up. There were, and there remain, more able young applicants than there were satisfactory and satisfying teaching positions. Competition for those positions meant that postsecondary institutions could be choosier, could weigh candidates on two scales, could evaluate promise in both teaching and research. At the same time, the call for equal opportunity brought an end to the exclusive "old boys' network." No longer could a professor at Harvard call a colleague at Yale to say he had a bright young man for him. Instead, job lists were instituted and the annual conventions held by each academic discipline became the sites for job interviews. To gain an interview, and to succeed in that interview so as to be invited for a campus visit, a candidate needed to demonstrate credentials in both fields, in teaching and in research. Like its peer colleges, Trinity, too, came to evaluate applicants for tenure-track positions on two scales.

So, here we are 50 years later, hiring assistant professors according to their promise in teaching and research and weighing their accomplishments in each at the time of their pre-tenure and tenure evaluations. This is what has happened. But is it a good thing?

I'll suspend that question for the time being, in order to turn to my definitions--what is teaching and what is research? Teaching is not simply something that happens in a classroom or studio or laboratory temporarily inhabited by a professor and a number of students. And teaching is not simply the delivery of some set of facts or theories from the teacher to some number of students. scientists.jpg (224595 bytes)

Teaching is what happens when one mind infiltrates
another mind.

Nor is the infiltrator necessarily a professor. Another student can assume that role, as can the turn of a class discussion, or a passage in a book, a moment during an experiment, a few bars of music. A mind is surprised, jarred, catalyzed; an idea happens. Good teaching aims at such moments, guiding students through discussions, demonstrations, writing, the shape of a syllabus. The best teaching multiplies them. What is necessary--in the teacher, the text, the experiment, the music--is a degree of intellectual and creative energy, and--for the teacher --a lot of hard work.

For teaching, hard work is a given; the intellectual and creative energy is not. And by that route, I reach my definition of research. Simply enough, research is finding out about something. For me, that means reading; for others it may mean interviewing, experimenting, observing. Research is not precisely the same as scholarship though we often use these terms interchangeably. Scholarship entails making public the results of research. The difference is significant.

I would doubt that there is a single faculty member at Trinity who does not do research, who does not engage in finding things out. Even teaching the same course year after year necessarily involves finding out what is happening in whatever field that course covers. All academic fields change with new discoveries, new approaches, new knowledge. But not all faculty members, at Trinity or at comparable colleges, publish the results of their research. And again, the difference is significant. Keeping up in a field means learning what others have discovered and published. Publishing in a field means discovering something new in order to let other professionals in your field know about it.

dario.jpg (359585 bytes)Faculty members seriously engaged in scholarship necessarily do both kinds of research, not only to keep their teaching up to date but also to keep abreast of the work in their own areas, to build their scholarship on that foundation. All that reading and interviewing and experimenting and observing takes time, lots of time. The question, of course, is whether that time is taken at the expense of teaching. Or, to put it another way, whether research, including scholarship, does a disservice to our students.

And that brings me to the "vs." that often stands between the words "teaching" and "research," the "vs." that makes them, if not antagonists, at best competitors. What are they, presumably, competing for? Time? Energy? Commitment? Trinity defines its faculty as "teacher/scholars," a term that allies the two activities, but even at Trinity that "vs." exists as a specter threatening competition.

I don't believe in the competitor formulation, though I readily admit that the true "teacher/scholar" works very hard indeed. But the reason I reject the notion of competing claims does not rest on the assumption that we should all be sleep-deprived workaholics. Rather, I assume that teaching and research, including scholarship, are complementary activities: teaching informs research and research informs teaching. Each is enriched by the other. Moreover, not only is that good for us, the teacher/scholars, but it is very good for the students. Scholarly work allows us better to perform that act of mind-infiltration that I identify as the mark of the most successful teaching.

An example from my own teaching. For the past several years I have taught a course called "Childhood in America." The subject matter of the course is the way in which the notion of childhood and the idea of the child have changed in the United States from the time of the Colonies to the mid 20th century. The "texts" for the course range from 17th-century poetry and shipping orders (requests for sending street children from London to the Colonies as workers), to 19th- and early 20th-century fiction, and include portraiture, comic strips, television documentaries, and film. The purpose of the course is to bring the students to a recognition of the ways in which childhood is culturally constructed and an understanding of the cultural and historic forces behind the changes in ideas about children.

Since I first taught the course in the early 1990s, I have read hundreds of documents about childhood. That's research of the kind that informs me about state-of-the-art work on this subject. And that research has made the course a better course each time that I have taught it. I simply know more about it. But not all that reading has been undertaken simply in the interest of refining "Childhood in America." A good deal of it centers about my own scholarly work, a study of the fictional treatment of the orphan in our culture. No, I do not plan to teach a course on that subject; it is far too narrow and specialized. Nevertheless, my work on the figure of the orphan has had a significant effect on the course, allowing me to see that the ways in which children are, and are not, implicated in family life offer a powerful tool for analyzing the documents we read and for locating and understanding the causes for change in the conception of childhood.

I believe that most students in this course do experience mind-infiltration. Some of that is accomplished by the materials themselves. When students read that the Massachusetts Bay Colony, at least on paper, considered a teenager's insubordination a capital offense, it gets their attention! When they compare public, religious attitudes toward the death of children in the Colonial period with private expressions of grief, they suddenly confront the divide between ideology and personal experience. When they move from the enclosed world of the bonded female family of Little Women to the open road of Little Orphan Annie, or find the gaiety and spunkiness of Tom Sawyer reincarnated in the film roles of Shirley Temple, their ideas about gender undergo subtle revision. My students are, after all, doing their own research. Granted, I have selected the "archives" for this research. And granted, this is not a course in which an independent research paper is one of the requirements. Still, the students study the materials, discuss them in class, argue over what they reveal about childhood, and all the time they are assessing and reassessing the ideas about childhood which their culture has taught them. Their final paper is an examination and evaluation of some current event that, yet again, calls into question our contemporary construction of childhood. Sadly, there is no shortage of such current events, from school shootings to infanticide. At least, with "Childhood in America" behind them--their research, if you will--my students respond to these events with the benefit of some history of our culture, and that makes their evaluations superior to most of the journalism and punditry that fill the newspapers and airwaves.

Trinity is a premier liberal arts college. What it offers its students is excellent teaching in an intimate, residential environment. Excellent teaching does not happen simply because of commitment, commitment to one's students, commitment to one's discipline. Excellent teaching happens when lively minds interact, and the lively minds among the professoriate are kept lively by research, again including scholarship. Forget that "vs."; we are teacher/scholars.

Jan Cohn served as dean of the faculty from 1987 to 1994.

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