>Despite my title, I swear this is not an allegorical treatise or a long lost Passus of Piers Plowman, though I do think that someone with more talent than I should write such a thing just for the fun of it!
No, this is my long promised post on what value I think research brings to teaching (and vice versa). It’s in response to a comment left by Anon here, and I’ll turn to that comment in a moment. I’ve actually posted on research in the classroom before, largely on teaching undergraduates how to do research, how to think of themselves as part of the scholarly conversation. That’s also something I emphasize all semester long in my graduate research methods class. Although that post isn’t explicitly about the relationship between my own research and my teaching, it is informed by that relationship, and it’s worth reading if you haven’t read it before. There are a couple of other posts where I talked about that process, and I’ll also be referring to this one later on.
Anyway, in the post to which Anonymous responded — the one immediately preceding this post — I was talking about the expenses of my upcoming plans for research and conference travel this summer. And Anon replied (in part):
While I appreciate the value of research, I do worry that the demand for research in universities is overshadowing the need for good teaching skills. … I have to wonder if professors like you are becoming extinct, if the demand for research (which is quantifiable, hard evidence of success, unlike teaching) is having a negative impact on the universities.
Undergrad students (and even some grad students) care very little about their professors’ publications-they care about what happens in the classroom. Perhaps the drop in the number of English majors is more than just the economy–perhaps it is also linked to the push to publish. Students might not be lucky enough to have a professor like Dr. V.–many have ones who are so consumed by the need to research and publish (whether of their own making or through pressure from their institutions) that they forget that they are teachers.
OK, first of all, let’s get the business about “the drop in the number of English majors” out the way, because it’s a somewhat faulty premise and really can’t even be correlated to whether or not professors do research. If you look at this handy chart on “Bachelor’s degrees conferred…” published by the National Center for Education Statistics (which I found via Michael Bérubé in this post), you’ll see that while there was a drop in degrees granted in English in the ’70s and ’80s, there’s generally been a rise in the ’90s and the period 2000-2007. The numbers aren’t quite up to that 1970-71 number, but that’s because that year and the few years before it were an anomaly. Unfortunately, you can’t see that on the chart, but as Bérubé has argued and shown elsewhere (in What’s Liberal for the Liberal Arts, I think, and in talks he’s given, including one at our university), the numbers of English majors is more or less steady over the post war decades *except* for that influx in the late ’60s to 1970. Of course, I realize that there is a drop (of about 1%) even over the last two decades if you look at English as a percentage of all degrees, but there are increases in some related fields, including Communications, which is on this chart, and Creative Writing, which isn’t on this chart, but which Bérubé talked about when he came to visit our campus. (And while most Creative Writing professors don’t do “research,” they most certainly have to produce their own creative work.) And there are increases in other majors where surely faculty at research-oriented universities are doing as much, if not more, research. And given the proliferation of majors and degrees over the same time, and the fact that the growth in college attendance is largely coming from first generation college students, that drop isn’t surprising or cause for panic (though perhaps for serious thought about recruitment) and probably has very little to do with what professors do outside of the classroom (or inside, for that matter, since we’re not getting the students there in the first place), and more to do with wider cultural trends.
So I strongly doubt that whether or not we produce research has a strong effect on the numbers of our majors. And at our university, where all of our assistant and associate professors, and most of our full professors, are very active in professional activities (research or creative work), our numbers are trending upward, in English literature, in general writing, in creative writing, and in linguistics.
That was all tangential, really, to Anon’s comments and questions, but I thought it was important to address. And it’s the only numbers I have to give. Alas, the rest of this post’s arguments come mostly from experience and may seem anecdotal, but I do think I’ve got a wide sense of the field, not just from my own experiences in college, grad school, and my current position, but from my huge network of friends and colleagues who teach at a range of colleges and universities. And of course I invite all my readers to chime in.
First of all, I think few people go into a PhD program in a humanities field without the recognition that they’re entering a teaching *and* research field. The possibilities of some organization, government agency, or corporation paying you (through funded research) to concentrate entirely or mostly on your research are few and far between for humanities folks. Even at the most prestigious research universities, the humanities professors have much more intense contact time with students — through a combination of classroom teaching and advising theses and dissertations — than in other arts and sciences fields. I’ve never heard of a humanities prof teaching only one class all year, for example, but I have heard of many science profs with such an arrangement. My point here is that people go into English and other humanities fields knowing that teaching will be an important part of their profession, and so that influences how we think of our professional selves; and I think that has become more true over the generations. And in English, largely through the expertise of composition specialists (whose research and teaching are inextricably intertwined, btw), we’ve been at the forefront of making sure that graduate students get pedagogical training prior to or coincident with their first teaching experiences, with continued advising, mentoring, and evaluation along the way to their degree. My own Ph.D. program — a top ten program whose faculty and graduates number many heavy hitters in research — required a pedagogical course before we taught for the first time, and another during our first quarter of teaching. We had a staff person and two senior TAs assigned to overseeing and mentoring TAs, and while I was there, they developed even more oversight, training, and mentoring. And in the MA program for which I am academic director and adviser, our first year students receive 40 hours of intensive training in a boot camp before the start of their first semester of teaching, and must also take a 3 credit hour seminar concurrent with that first semester — all run by our composition faculty, who are specialist in both the research and the teaching of composition. That seminar is currently graded S/U, but the director of composition and I have been talking about making it a graded course, since students do a serious composition studies research project in it, related to student assessment. (Again, note the intertwining of research and teaching in composition studies.)
I point out all of that to say that even at the top Research 1 programs like my PhD program, teaching and the training of teachers is taken very seriously in English. I’d also add that the chair while I was a grad student was very fond of trumpeting the fact that the English department had won more outstanding teaching awards than any department on campus.
On a more individual level (whether the individual student or the individual faculty member), I have to say I think a professor’s research expertise — and I mean continuing research expertise, not just what you did as a graduate student — is of indispensable value to students whether they know it or not. And I wouldn’t be the teacher that I am without that research expertise. I also wouldn’t have as much job satisfaction without my research (and job satisfaction is at least correlated to performance in all sorts of professions, but I would say that’s especially important in any field where you have intense face to face interaction with constituents). But let me address each of those points — the benefit to students; the benefit to the faculty member — separately (though I think they’re ultimately intimately related).
I’m going to reveal myself as a partisan here, but I think college students majoring in a subject — whatever the subject — should be taught by experts in that discipline and its subfields, especially in upper-division courses in the major. That doesn’t mean that I think that the professional activity output of all faculty members at every kind of college should be the same. And it doesn’t mean that I think that all sets of research expectations are sane and fair. Some are particularly insane; for instance, any English department that expects two books before tenure is clearly run by robots — megalomaniac, workaholic robots with stay at home robot spouses. But in my ideal world, everyone would be doing some research — even if it’s only a slowly written article every few years, with conference presentations along the way — related to the field(s) they teach. Otherwise, they’re really not going to keep up with what’s going on in the field on their own (the most diligent might; but many won’t). Alas, at many small colleges this is the case, and that’s unfortunate, in my opinion. They hire one person to cover everything before 1800 Brit Lit, for example. And in many of those places you’ve got a guy teaching medieval lit through the Romantics who wrote a dissertation on 18th century literature 20+ years ago (for example) and hasn’t read any research on medieval lit since his first year in graduate school. Sure, in the beginning, he threw himself into getting enough up to speed to be ahead of the students, but over time he fell behind. And who can blame him really — there’s no reward for keeping up and the consequences are beyond his ken. But I can tell you he’s going to be giving people some seriously out of date ideas about medieval literature. Now, if that guy is teaching the big survey and the students eventually have to take the upper-division class taught by the actual medievalist in the department, that’s less of a big deal. (Side note: one of the profs in my grad program who taught the big survey use to say to the students over and over: “As your upper division professors will tell you, everything I’m saying is *a lie*.” It was kind of hilarious.) But if this guy is the only pre-1800 Brit Lit person, he’s also teaching Chaucer and Shakespeare and the medieval and renaissance lit courses, and so on. And maybe he has tremendous pedagogical skills, which are certainly important, but he’s not an expert. And I think when you’re majoring in something, your goal should be to learn how to become an expert (not necessarily to become an expert — that takes longer — but to see what the path to that expertise is). If you don’t have experts guiding you, how can you learn that?
Such situations are particularly detrimental to those students who want to go on to graduate school in their major. That’s one reason why our MA program exists, and one of the ways in which it’s particularly good. We get a lot of students who couldn’t get into Ph.D. programs straight out of college (they tried), but then who get into them after some more concentrated, research-oriented work in their chosen specialties in our program, with expert guidance. I’ve had to spend last two years unteaching a certain student, trying to get her to rid herself of all the out of date and misinformed ideas she has about the Middle Ages (she wants to be a medievalist) courtesy of undergraduate instructors who stopped paying attention to scholarship circa 1970. And really, that’s a short answer to why research is necessary in my particular job — I teach graduate students. I teach them in my specialty — medieval literature — and I teach them how to do research in the research methods class. After all, you shouldn’t expect to be called a master of something unless you’re learning about the current scholarly debates in the field and learning the methods and practices of how to contribute to the knowledge in that field.
But even if we were an undergraduate-only institution, and even if none of my students ever went on to graduate school, I think our students should be taught in their upper division major courses by experts in the field. And those experts should actively and explicitly bring that expertise into the classroom and demonstrate to the students why it matters — to the students and to the world at large. Contrary to what Anon says, students do care about our research if you show how it has a direct impact on their classroom experience. It’s actually fun — for me and for the engaged students — to see them realize that all those books and articles they’re reading for their research papers in my classes were written by other people’s professors. Sure, I could teach the undergraduate research paper, I suppose, without having published research myself, but where would my authority come from? And how could I talk authoritatively about the process, about learning to enter a bigger conversation, about writing for an actual audience? And wouldn’t that then reduce the assignment to pure exercise? If I’m going to teach my students where new knowledge comes from in the humanities, and how we argue, present evidence, and write with an audience in mind (or with different audiences in mind for different projects), shouldn’t I be talking from experience and expertise? And if I’m going to be teaching them to imagine their research writing as having an audience, shouldn’t I know what it means to write rigorous research for an actual audience? And as I talk about in this post (also linked above), my students are fascinated with the process we go through, and the fact that we’re reviewed and “graded” by both peer review and book reviews after the fact. I think it’s important to talk about peer review, too, to show them how to weigh the value of information and arguments they get from various sources — and that’s a skill generalizable to all sorts of “real life” situations and issues.
And given our “information age,” in which too many people give equal weight to all “opinions” (and think everything is mere opinion), I think it’s very important indeed to teach students about expertise and also to model it for them — not to bow down to it unthinkingly, but to appreciate where expertise derives from and who is (and isn’t an expert). I also want my particular population of students to know that the experts are NOT only at the Ivies and the flagship research universities, but that they have experts teaching them right here in Rust Belt, and that they, too, could become experts if they so wanted. And in the short term, they can become an expert in something a little narrower, whether it’s the history of interpretations of Grendel’s Mother or of sexuality in Marie de France’s Lais, or the applicability of deconstruction to understanding The Pardoner’s unraveling in The Canterbury Tales, or whatever. I’ve had more than my share of students doing Honors Thesis projects with me on such topics, and yet none of them went on to graduate school in English. They pursued these topics because they were interested them and also, as they have expressed themselves, it gave them a sense of pride in knowing something deeply and intimately, of being an expert in some limited way. Given the collective low self-esteem that this town and university and its citizens and students have, that sense of pride is a huge deal.
Could I give them that opportunity without doing research myself? Yes, I suppose. After all, I remember writing research papers for English classes in high school and feeling like quite the expert. And my high school teachers weren’t published experts on the authors and texts I was writing about, but they did a good job of teaching me how to come up with research questions, how to do research, and how to write a readable, well-argued paper. But then I went to college, where my professors were experts, and wrote more on those same works, and my professors challenged and pushed me in ways specific to the subject matter that my high school teachers didn’t do. And so I understood both my subject matter and the process of doing research on a more sophisticated level. Isn’t that what college should be, especially within a major? Shouldn’t it be bringing a student to a deeper, more sophisticated understanding of a subject? I’m not sure that can be done with faculty who don’t do some research in their field.
What’s more, learning at the college level should be as much about process as content — or more even. Passing on expert knowledge to a passive body of student who are merely supposed to accept it as such (whether it’s your expert knowledge or someone else’s) is a terrible model of education. (Paulo Friere called it the “banking concept,” but you don’t have to go to a Marxist/anti-colonialist thinker like Friere to find objectives to passive learning.) And I think you can best model how to do something if you’re also a practitioner yourself. And in literary scholarship and criticism, those practitioners are all within the academy. We don’t have clinical practices or clients outside of the academy. So, in effect, the fact that we do divide our time between research and teaching is a bit like the part-time law professor who teaches and practices law, or the teaching hospital doctor who is seeing patients, teaching med students, and also writing up unusual cases for presentation and publication. (And I have to say, since I brought up the medicine model, I do prefer the medical practitioners I see in my own life to be researchers as well as clinicians. But like I said above, I’m a partisan for research.)
I really shouldn’t use the phrase “divide…time” to characterize the relationship between research and teaching. Oh sure, I try to set aside time for writing and reading, and I often put it first before teaching prep and grading if it occupies the same day, but that’s because I know the teaching stuff has to get done and therefore will get done (and will expand to fill the time I give it), while the research can be put off (to my own detriment when it comes time for merit review). I’m not very good at this, though, and the truth is that I do most of my research in the interstices between teaching — on Fridays, if at all, during the semester, and otherwise, mostly during breaks and summer. That’s not to say that there aren’t faculty members who do put their research time before their teaching time regularly, and perhaps could spend more time working on their teaching skills. I know they exist. (And what those professors lack in classroom skills, they’re still resources of expertise that a student might approach — say, as an outside reader on a thesis. I have to say, I always learned even from the most uninspiring teachers, and the most dazzling in the classroom didn’t always push my thinking or knowledge enough.) But I have to say, I think the vast majority of my cohort in English across the institutional spectrum has a schedule and a rhythm that looks more like mine.
And more to the point, when we’re doing our research, that doesn’t mean we’re not thinking about teaching. In English it’s much easier to draw these things together than it might be in, say, theoretical physics. (Though I like to think that Brian Greene is a fantastic teacher, and not just because he kind of looks like David Duchovny from some angles. Wait, did I just say that out loud?) Even my current research, which I like to jokingly call “the bad poetry project” and which takes as its subject poetry that I’m not likely to teach per se in my courses, still informs both what and how I teach. Again, I can talk about the process of doing the research — and here, I can tell students that sometimes the research requires slow, methodical, and boring sifting through references like the Index of Middle English Verse to find the stuff you need. But I also draw on it in a myriad of ways in teaching other literature in the period. Since my project involves owners and compilers and readers of manuscripts, I can talk about the audience for medieval literature (especially in the late Middle Ages), and that often gets me thinking about issues of readership and audience in the earlier periods as well, which I draw into my classes. Students often perk up when I bring up such subjects, because, after all, they have more in common with medieval readers than medieval writers. And sometimes the reading I’m doing for my research doesn’t end up being that useful for my project, but shows up in my classes instead. As a result of having to teach myself much more about paleography and codicology to do what I’m doing with this new research project, I’m bringing much more of that into my classes and I’m planning developing a history of the book or manuscript study class for the English majors, to compliment a course on the printed book and the art of the letter press that one of my colleagues offers. Likewise, my teaching gives me eureka moments for my research, and I cycle texts in and out of my syllabus to keep that sort of thing happening.
And finally, I have to say, I really wouldn’t like my job much if it were just about teaching. Plenty of people prefer teaching to research (and really, I think in my discipline they outnumber the ones who prefer research to teaching), and there are jobs that are all about the teaching, but I really need the balance to keep me going. My research and teaching are married and I don’t intend to divorce them any time soon. I think I’d go mad if I didn’t read any new scholarship in my field. That, too, gives me insight for my teaching, as a new interpretation can mean a new teaching approach to a text. Case in point: John Niles’s Speculum article on the ending of “The Wife’s Lament” completely informs how I teach that text in both my literature class and my Old English language class. If I didn’t have to produce my own research, I’d still read the major journals, or at least skim the articles apropos to what I teach, but sooner or later I’d get the bug to enter into the conversation myself. And that’s the same spark that I’m trying to give or convey to my students.