Saturday, July 26, 2008

Does Research Help or Hurt Teaching?

By Richard Vedder

The Pope Center is going to be running an interesting dialogue (their Clarion Call blog) between Yours Truly and several other economists, one a rough contemporary of mine (my good friend Jim Gwartney at Florida State), and other younger scholars (e.g., Russ Sobel of West Virginia University). It is an outgrowth of a presentation a year ago at the Association for Private Enterprise Education meetings in some ritzy foreign resort --Cancun if I recall correctly (to which most participants no doubt traveled at taxpayer expense for a little R and R mixed in with some amiable scholarly interchange).

The issue: does faculty research help or hinder the enterprise of offering quality instruction to students? The answer, I think (and probably most of the commentators in the Pope Center forum available online agree) is "both." Most of the time, a good researcher can be a better teacher because of the knowledge gained and the enthusiasm for the scholarly discipline reinforced by scholarly research, but if research becomes excessively time consuming, senior professors abandon students to ill trained graduate students, sometimes with dubious language capabilities.

As part of a massive CCAP project done for Forbes. com on college rankings (which will be unveiled in a few weeks), we have looked at student attitudes towards professors at various institutions --over 500 overall. As a generalization, universities with a strong research orientation find their students LESS satisfied with the instruction they receive than those with a lesser research orientation, especially traditional liberal arts colleges. In other words, in the real world there is a trade-off between teaching and research, at least in the minds of the consumers, the undergraduate students.

The incentive system at most schools is strongly biased towards heavy emphasis on research. Patiently counseling students wins you no salary increases or tenure, but writing articles does. Spending time carefully preparing for class is less remunerative than reallocating time so you skim on class preparation and write one more paper a year. There is still too much of a "student be damned" attitude in American higher education. The Pope Center dialogue does not pick that up much, but it is nonetheless an interesting read. I want to thank Jane Shaw and our other good friends at the Pope Center for making this little exchange available to the broader public.


capeman said...

"universities with a strong research orientation find their students LESS satisfied with the instruction they receive than those with a lesser research orientation, especially traditional liberal arts colleges."

I hope they've controlled for other factors, but given past output, I wouldn't hold my breath.

So, did they compare the University of Iowa with Grinnell College? University of Washington with Williams?

Or, Amherst with Harvard?

Or, just for fun, how about Ohio State vs. Ohio University!

The fact is, the students are voting with their feet and pocketbooks for the research institutions, as judged by the quality of students when you make a fair comparison (for example, of financial resources).

If some students, given the choice, prefer to go to Amherst and feel ripped off at Harvard, fine.

As a matter of fact, there are quite a few disgruntled Harvard students. But Harvard (and Caltech and Princeton and MIT) always manages to be close to or at the top in student qualifications.

Maybe the "consumers" know something?

Eveningsun said...

I'm guessing we're talking more correlation than causation here. Are "universities with a strong research orientation" more likely to have awesome rec centers and to be located in cities with an awesome party scene? Are the more student-focused schools more likely to be located in the boonies? This might be one of those cases where students' responses to a questionnaire are belied, as Capeman suggests, by the decisions they have already made with their feet.

Sure, there's "still too much of a 'student be damned' attitude in American higher education." And all the calls for assessment and accountability might well make things worse. After all, it's a lot easier to quantify and assess research than teaching. Careful what you wish for, Richard.

Rafe said...

The problem with the university scene is that if you wanted to get to a better system you would rather start round about 1945 than the present time. With that said, the next thing is to see the universities as a part of a bigger picture of intellectual life as explained by Jacques Barzun in a series of books from 1945 to the present time, but especially "Teacher in America" (1945/1983), "The House of Intellect" (1957) and "The American University" (1968). For an overview.

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