We are asking our best university professors to spend too much time in the classroom. It would be better for all if these professors were not made to toil the five to seven-plus hours a week required to competently teach classes such as “Pre-college mathematics” and “Introduction to reading” to ill-prepared, largely unmotivated high school graduates.
What should they do instead? What they do best: figure things out, tell us what they have found, and train apprentices to carry on their work after they have gone.
Here is what everybody knows: the best researchers are often not the best teachers. Statistically, the relationship is negatively correlated. Prowess in the lab implies indexterity in the classroom. This is natural. An individual managing four graduate students, one post-doc, writing a new grant, revising an old one, and writing papers from the results of a third cannot devote adequate energy to preparing a Friday-morning quiz on “What is a paragraph?” to freshmen, of which a non-trivial fraction are hungover or otherwise sleep deprived. I am speaking “on average”, of the predominant reality, and therefore it would be a fallacy to counter with examples of exceptional researchers who are also brilliant teachers.
The difficulty with the spate of books and articles on the awfulness of higher education is that each picks one culprit that, once defeated, will release the system from its bonds. This assumes a linearity of ills. But this is not found in practice. There is not one problem, there are many, and each is related to the other in the same way tangled fishing lines lead to hooks. The best we can hope for is incremental, occasional improvement.
One increment is this: increase class buyouts and make them all or nothing. We all know people who boast they do not have to teach. The implication is that they have more time to do the real work to which they are best suited. Those who would devote themselves to productive, useful research—as defined by external grant agencies and companies—should not be forced into teaching, which eats valuable time. Let those who would run their professorships like businesses do so. This system has proven itself in producing lasting and valuable knowledge.
Universities should become bipartite: college and research institute under one banner. In practice, each would—and should—have little to do with the other, though they would share the same name and school colors. The college mandate is to teach all undergraduate courses and those graduate courses which are non-specialized. The people that man colleges should not be researchers—unless, as will be rare, somebody wants to cross the line and write a paper on a subject dear to them. The people that man research institutes should not be teachers—unless, as will be rare, somebody wants to cross the line for a temporary change of scenery. It would be best if some “universities” eschew all research (via attrition of workers) and become solely colleges. Other universities should separate from, or eliminate their college components, and become solely research institutes.
At first, this system is bound to produce jealousies. Teachers in colleges will look at their better paid brethren and sisthren in research institutes and feel envy. When reporters come calling for quotes about what the “Latest research shows…” they will do so at research institutes and not colleges. Teachers will ask, “Why do I have to teach five classes a semester when Joe just sits in his office writing grants?”
It will be in vain to explain that this compares apples to oranges. Teachers aren’t researchers, and researchers aren’t teachers. It will do little good to say, “Okay, if you want to do research, then do it. Spend your sabbatical writing a grant and change jobs.” One job is not inherently superior to another: they cannot be, because they are different things. Apples are only superior to oranges if you want to make pie. If anything, teaching is the more crucial position to society, though it is true that the wait for results is long.
To alleviate pain, we can employ a device businesses use: inflated titles. Just as all those who were stock boys are now “Associates”, teachers, dissatisfied with being called “Professor” when researchers share that label, could be called Exalted Expostulators, Level III. Even better, researchers should not be given the title of “Professor.” Just call them “Researchers” (and prefix this with “Associate” etc. to indicate rank).
The “PhD” should not be a requirement to teach. Nor should the lack of it, as William James admonished us over a century ago, be a bar to research. Having those letters are surely correlated with ability, but they are not especially predictive of it, particularly in teaching. It is ability that should be measured, not raw credentials. Having graduated college—but not having been apprenticed to a researcher—is the minimum necessary to teach. Researchers retired from active pursuit of papers and profits often make good teachers, though most of this improvement comes from the seasoning of years.
Overhead—that large percent that is tacked onto most grants but which is not given to researchers and instead disappears into the labyrinth of administration–in this system should be easier to track. Monies brought in by research institutes should remain on that side of the universities. Student tuition should likewise stay in colleges. Since these are separate organizations (though perhaps under one roof), their budgets should not be mixed. Success in one area does not imply success in the other. Good teachers should not finance poor research, nor should productive researchers be forced to pay for the existence of departments that have nothing to do with them.
If you are a professor or researcher, please email this article to a colleague or administrator.