Research and Teaching: A Great Pairing

Public higher education is under pressure from politicians, businesspeople, and taxpayers. They think the only thing professors do is teach, and that, being their only responsibility, should teach more than 3 or 4 courses per semester. In fact, we also conduct research and perform many important activities to serve the university and our respective professions. Bureaucrats obviously think the only thing we do that is of value is teach, when in fact all four of our primary responsibilities have value and are intertwined so as to produce better results for all stakeholders – students, faculty, the university, payers, employers, and society.

Research is particularly important because, for most professors, it informs teaching. Yet, occasionally it does not. Years ago, a colleague of gave me a copy of a journal paper he had written. This was one of many he had written in the field of law. I read the paper and was very impressed by his outstanding research. Sometime later, I asked him if he brought his excellent research work into the classroom. He said, “No, what for? It’s not relevant.” I was shocked. In my view, a professor’s research should always be brought into the classroom.

I think the professor felt that his research interests in law were removed from the courses he taught in banking. I certainly did not see it that way. For example, professors teach courses in different topics, only some of which are directly related to their research. The others are almost always indirectly related, but sufficient related so that it can be brought into the classroom. The worthwhile challenge that all professors face is explaining how their research is relevant to the course, selected topics therein, to students, and society. Such explanations can be the feature of a course, such as Research Methods, or side-stories that help to better explain the material and improve student comprehension.

For example, research projects must be designed in intelligent ways in order for the data collected to be useful. Most academic subjects contain within them wonderful stories of elegant research designs that will help students to understand the problems that the researchers were trying to address. Sometimes research proceeds according to plan, but often it does not. Within that activity are numerous lessons-learned that influence research design and are excellent teaching points that expand students’ knowledge of the subject matter and help them better understand how to conduct research.

To be considered educated requires that students understand how to conduct research in order to find answers to important questions that arise at work and in life. We desperately want our graduates to know how to answer such fundamental questions as: “What do university professors do.” If they do not know how to conduct research – what all teachers teach from third grade onward – then they would quickly come to an idiotic answer such as “The only thing professors do is teach” and suggest idiotic improvements such as “Let’s make them teach more courses.”

It is true that some professors do little or no research. Their position may not require it, or their time could be consumed by service to the university or service to their professions, or they might have grown tired of conducting research as they near retirement. Nevertheless, these professors will utilize the research output of other professors, which appears in textbooks and academic journals that form the basis for students’ assignments.

One way or another, research is an integral part of the job of professors in higher education, as they search to answer questions and discover the truth. As answers and truths reveal themselves over time, they become an integral part of teaching by professors and learning by students.

Many politicians and bureaucrats argue that research takes time away from teaching, or that teaching and research are in opposition to one another. That is true; research does take time away from teaching, but as I have explained previously, they are not in opposition to one another. They are a great pairing. To think that teaching in higher education is or should be the same as K-12 education is a major error in one’s understanding of the purpose and mission of higher education, the role of professors, and what it means to be an educated person. This type of illogical thinking, willful or accidental, does not reflect well on businesspersons, politicians, or bureaucrat’s Alma Maters.

It is also true that the quality of teaching varies widely from one professor to another. Excellence in research does not guarantee excellence in teaching. Poor teaching is indeed a problem, sometimes the result of assigning courses to faculty outside of their areas of strength. But, this and other problems can be corrected if university leadership were to recognize this problem and lead sustained efforts to improve teaching. Higher education leaders must take on this challenge to help assure that students graduate with the requisite knowledge and skills needed to effectively function in and contribute to society.

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