Monday, November 21, 2005

Teaching and research: Substitutes or complements? 

I first noted this post from Craig Newmark about a reduction in teaching load in the economics department at the University of Virginia. Margaret Soltan notes that the department is cancelling classes and bringing in adjuncts to teach the rest, and that this is to the detriment of students. Well, their visitors aren't exactly chopped liver, four of five with PhDs from first-rate institutions. (So why are they teaching as adjuncts? --ed. Perhaps they came out in the market late, or doing a post-doc. I don't know.) Stephen Karlson adds some details from the UVa newspaper suggesting the school is responding to competition for these researchers, while remaining concerned over the loss of faculty from the classroom.

One point that misses, however, is the pedagogical return to having faculty who do research. Newmark also posts about Duke hiring faculty in its economics department for the expressed intent of collaborative research with students.

A primary reason for hiring more professors is the University- wide push toward encouraging independent research projects by undergraduate students�a goal that requires one-on-one faculty-student interaction, administrators said.

�George McLendon is very eager to see us offer more research opportunities for the undergraduates, and inevitably that involves more faculty members,� said Emma Rasiel, director of undergraduate studies for economics. �We don�t want to stretch the faculty too thin.�

And with whom would you want those students to have one-on-one interaction if not someone who actually does research?

Virginia, Duke, the University of Minnesota and other top institutions view their mission as turning out PhDs. They will talk a good game about undergraduate education, but they are about creation of knowledge much more than dissemination. High-profile researchers will generate applications for graduate study from better and better students. While you may not get a whole course from that faculty member, those graduate students who are good will have access to the star faculty, and they will generate more and better applications for graduate study. I think there's a case as well that they turn out better PhDs, too.

But what about the SCSUs of the world? Even there, our department has continuously argued that our best teachers are those who also do research. They are better read of the newest and best literature in their fields. They understand the craft of writing good research papers, which we use to teach our senior seminar.* (Here, for example, is my syllabus for that course.) I participate in blogging on The Sports Economist so that I can keep up to teach my once-in-a-while Economics of Sports class. (Sorry, no syllabus -- I'm completely redoing it this spring.) It's not just that academics at Directional State University who don't do research aren't fun in the lunchroom or at the office mixer -- they are also uninteresting in the classroom, as they recite the same tired notes semester after semester.

I'm not sure if I'm saying that teaching and research are complements in production, or that there are scope economies. But I am saying that the view that those that do research are somehow cheating the student body or the taxpayer is simplistic.

*--"But you don't give release time for research, do you?" We try. Faculty can buy themselves out of the classroom for sponsored research, just as they do elsewhere. And we try to control loads to make our current 24 credit hours (roughly, 8 classes) per year assignment a little more manageable. And unlike Virginia, I can't go out and hire adjuncts with PhDs from Chicago and Northwestern to replace faculty who are bought out of the classroom.

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