Thursday, July 24, 2014

Tenure Blues ... of, Life of a Prof Part III: "Students are the losers"

This is part three of a series of blogs I'm writing that were animated by Richard Gwyn's critique of tenure and research-oriented profs. The argument I think he is making is that students are suffering because faculty are more interested in research than  teaching. Hence, students are accumulating significant debts in the form of student loans without deriving any benefit from their education. In my previous blogs, I tried to ask what I took to be a simple question about assertions such as this: is this true? Is the education of students suffering at the hands of recalcitrant profs who are not interested in teaching?

This is a good question that needs to be addressed because if it were true, there is a serious problem that needs to be addressed. The problem with Gwyn's assertion is that he does not, in fact, demonstrate that it is true. Instead, he uses what we might call a "fake" argument. How is it fake? His argument is that post-secondary education is failing students because students have a large debt. Yet, if we look at this equation, we can see that the one has nothing to do with the other. Most faculty I know, in fact, think that tuition is too high, but faculty do not set tuition rates. At our budget meeting at Mount Allison this past Winter, faculty complained again and again about tuition rates and various fees charged to students. Thus, the idea that faculty are somehow to blame for high tuition is at the very least so simplistic as to be meaningless in the sense that it does not tell us why tuition is high. The key reason that tuition is high is cut backs in state funding for universities. What does this have to do with research? I honestly don't know. There might be a connection but that connection is not self evident. Someone can draw it out for me if they want. Hence, Gwyn's argument runs into a problem: his proof that post-secondary education is failing because faculty do too much research and not enough teaching fails because he has not demonstrated that this is actually the case. Everyone agrees that there is an accessibility problem, but that problem seems to be related to state policy; not research. Or, to make my point in a different and hopefully clearer way: if faculty did less research ... would tuition drop? The logic of Gwyn's argument is that it will. Do we believe him?

Before we reach a final determination on that question, however, let's address two other issues. First, what is the connection between research and teaching? Second, do we have any evidence that teaching is declining in quality as more research is being done?  I'll address these questions in this order.

First, there is a connection between teaching and research. Ask your students or students ask yourselves or parents ask yourselves. Do you want higher level education conducted by individuals who are not active in their research? Does anyone want to history courses from a professor who never goes the archives? Does anyone want to take Chemistry from a scientist who is not in the lab? Does anyone want to painting from an individual who never creates art? We could go on down the line but I assume my point is made. One of the things that differentiates higher level education from lower level education is that it is conducted by practitioners in their fields. Their experiences in practicing their disciplines enriches education; it does not hamper it. The scientist who is in the lab and conducting research knows more about how to teach students who to conduct research and practice, say, chemistry than the one who does not. I asked my students precisely this question: did they want to take courses in, say, literature from a person who does not read novels? They thought the question was odd but when I pressed them, they conceded that it was, in fact, important to them that their faculty were active, were doing their job, we up on the latest developments (we call this research!), and contributed to their fields. The anthropologist who conducts fieldwork knows more about the "other" culture than one who does not, as another example. Far from seeing research and teaching as in opposition, my students tended to see them as connected.

And, I will confess, I do.  Consider my discipline: history. After we get past the introductory narratives, one of the things that students learn in history is how to assess completing narratives about the past on the basis of primary documents. They learn about the biases that infuse primary documents, the necessity of empirical evidence, how different historians produce different narratives by asking different questions of the past. In other words, they don't just watch a video; they learn how to conduct research and how this conduct affects how we view the past. I am a bit surprised the Gwyn completely neglects this element of post-secondary education since he, in fact, claims history is important and has written history himself. Does he believe that students can be properly educated in history without knowing how history is actually done? Does he believe he can write history without research? Does he believe students should be instructed to write history without research?

Second, do we have any evidence that post-secondary education is failing students? This is a tough question because it involves  consideration of a range of variables. What do we mean by failing? Are students learning less than they used to? Are they not learning what they need to learn? And, how do we determine what students need to learn?

I am not being rhetorical here, but rather trying to get us asking the right questions. I've been teaching full time for fifteen years. I'd like to believe that I am a better teacher now than when I first started and I think that is a pretty normal belief. One gets better over time. But, the important point is that Gwyn is contended precisely the opposite: I've gotten worse over time because I am devoting too much time (not *me* per se but faculty in general) to my research. That might be a fair enough assessment, but what evidence does Gwyn have for this?

I keep asking this question -- what evidence does he have? -- because I don't see the evidence? We can't use things like post-graduation unemployment rates because that a product of factors external to teaching (think of the US financial crisis, which caused serious economic problems. It was caused by serious problems with US capital markets and their regulation; not by teaching). Moreover, those rates don't tell us a great deal because they are variations on a theme (unemployment is, in fact, lower than when I was a student ... does that mean that I am a better teaching than my profs?).

The truth of the matter is that Gwyn is asking an important question. The fact that he goes about answering it the wrong way, should not stop us from asking it. I'd argue -- and this will be a theme of a future blog -- that research and teaching (among other things, including service and engaging national issues) is a matter of finding the right balance and finding ways to improve teaching. Neither of which, I will argue, can be done by attacking tenure. Instead, we need to seriously address these issues by establishing a baseline that allows us to think about whether or not our teaching and research are meeting our goals, for students, for faculty, universities, and society. Without evidence, we are left with conjecture and conjecture that claims to be a public statement ... isn't. It is propaganda.
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