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Margin Notes

Do faculty prefer research over teaching?

Or is it the incentives that push them in that direction?


There continues to be much discussion about the differentiation of university missions, particularly in Ontario. Higher Education Strategy Associates recently held a two-day conference on the issue. The conference was titled “Stepford Universities,” based on the premise that universities are in danger of “becoming clones of one another, robotically following the same script – rather like the placid ladies of Stepford,” writes HESA principal Alex Usher. That script he refers to, generally speaking, is a rush by universities to become more research intensive, leading to “homogenization and isomorphism.” I’m not sure Mr. Usher states it specifically, but the corollary to this research focus is that universities are seen to be devaluing teaching.

This, of course, is not news to anyone involved in higher education in Canada – and the public is also starting to take notice. Just this morning, the Globe and Mail ran a long editorial that claims teaching at universities is getting “short shrift.” To be fair, the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada is aware of the issue and has stated that “university presidents have made excellence in undergraduate education a priority and are taking action to strengthen the learning experience and outcomes.”

But, getting back to the topic of differentiation, I think it’s unfortunate that the discussion tends to focus on this dichotomy between research and teaching. That, in turn, has led some to promote teaching-oriented institutions as an antidote to research-intensive ones, which I’m not sure is a good idea. It would likely be more fruitful to speak of university “specialization,” where universities would promote research and teaching equally, but would develop mandates to specialize in certain areas. This is similar to what the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario recommended in its 2010 report, The Benefits of Greater Differentiation of Ontario’s University Sector.

The Globe and Mail, parenthetically, recently published a very good piece by Professor Stephen Saideman of McGill University opining that “Universities aren’t about teaching vs. research, they’re about teaching and research.” For the time being, however, teaching vs. research will likely remain the dialectic.

Often missing in this discussion, it seems to me, is the faculty perspective. Do faculty members favour this research focus? Mr. Usher thinks so. He writes:  “Let’s not kid ourselves; nobody is happier about the increasing research-intensiveness of Canadian universities than academics themselves. When middling universities tell their staff they have to teach less in order to keep up with the big boys and girls of Canadian academia, who complains, exactly?”

In a later post, he writes that the professoriate, “given the choice, prefer their professional lives to revolve more around research than teaching. … Left to their own devices, this is what they’d prefer to be doing. Hence the trend towards institutional isomorphism.”

But is this true? One commentator, named “Rachelle,” responded: “I think many faculty would prefer a teaching-focused career or more balance between teaching and research. … The mad scramble to get research grants and to publish is unattractive to many people. As a recent PhD, I see many of my peers turning away from academia for these very reasons.”

I know many professors who are passionate about teaching. Yet, there is no question that research success is valued over teaching excellence in promotion decisions. Any young faculty member hoping to get tenure would be foolish to concentrate his or her efforts on teaching over research. That reality may also explain why there has been relatively little take-up by professors for teaching-only positions at universities where this option is offered. Who wants to place themselves in what may be perceived as a career dead end?

What’s your view? Is it simply a question of changing the incentives and rewards structures to place more value on teaching?

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is a former editor of University Affairs.
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  1. Craig Monk / October 11, 2011 at 12:13

    The issue is complicated by the state of the undergraduate curriculum, in my view. Teaching is an indispensible part of my research program in the humanities, though I can see how working through materials with undergraduates might be of less use to other kinds of researchers. I have always viewed it as my responsibility not to fill my classes with the narrowest bits of antiquarian knowledge, but there is resistance against any manner of curricular specialization that might align research and teaching more profitably. I also find that I spend more and more of my time teaching basic skills in even senior undergraduate courses. So if the choice is research or generalist teaching to people who cannot research, quote, or cite, I can see why people would choose the former, if given a choice. But ask research faculty if they could teach a senior course, balanced with generalist and specialized material, to students who are prepared for it, and the answer might be quite different.

  2. JoVE / October 11, 2011 at 15:23

    I don’t think “faculty” are homogenous. There are those who would love to research and never see a student but they are probably very very few. There are those who would like a balance between teaching and research but what “balance” means would vary considerably. And there are those who find teaching (including undergraduate teaching at the 1st and 2nd year level) the most rewarding part of the job.

    Of course even in a “teaching focused” career there is a need for research and scholarship. And there are those who love teaching but would find the job much less enjoyable if they didn’t have some graduate students and others who really don’t care whether they teach graduate students.

    The question is how to we get this balance? And how do we value the work that all of these different types of faculty do? There are entrenched cultures within academia that tend to consider those who value teaching as lesser scholars, which can lead to the reverse characterization of those who prioritize research as poor teachers or not caring about students(which is not necessarily the case).

    What if there is no one right model?

  3. Alex Usher / October 12, 2011 at 20:03

    I don’t think all teachers prefer research to teaching. I would simply observe a) that professors have an in-built bias towards research because it is on that basis that they receive their doctorates, their teaching positions and tenure, and b) while I have on many occasions seen faculty organize to obtain lower teaching loads or agitate for more research funding (which invariably carries lower course load responsibilities), I have in 20 years in this business yet to see faculty agitate collectively for a reduction in the research load or a re-balancing of teaching and research responsibilities.

    Individual professors’ interests may vary; their collective interests have always been expressed on only one side of the ledger.

  4. Hbird18 / October 15, 2011 at 10:58

    Absolutely faculty members prefer research over teaching. Who sets the protocol for hiring? Faculty. Who determines the criteria of hiring and tenure? Faculty. Who allows courses to be contracted out to sessional faculty for pay that is set at approximately $6,000 per course – when their salaries are $60-100+000 per year and they teach 3 semester-long courses per year? Full-time, tenured faculty. If faculty members wanted to change the system to reward teaching and emphasize undergraduate education — they would. But, the trend in hiring for new faculty with publishing, researching funding, and grant obtainment demonstrates that many faculty (particularly in research-focused institutions) do not give a shit about teaching undergraduates or hiring new faculty who are strong “teaching professors”. The system is now being questioned (thank goodness!), but unfortunately, the ones who suffer most are the undergraduate students.