A few days ago, an article by Richard Vedder on the lack of benefit given the costs of research was published at Bloomberg.com. In the article, Vedder argued that the benefits and quality of research conducted at many U.S. universities may be greatly overstated and that the ongoing push to limit teaching in order to emphasize research is hurting our students and our universities.
It’s only been a few days and I am a notoriously slow thinker, so I am still working my way through the article. On the one hand, I absolutely agree that the de-emphasis of teaching is terrible. Teaching is an incredibly difficult task, and by casting it as secondary to research, the role and challenge of teaching is diminished. By putting teaching responsibilities onto less trained individuals, the message is sent that anyone, regardless of training, can teach. That is simply not true and the students are the ones who suffer because of it. The university should be a place to build knowledge, but it should not be a place where only faculty can build that knowledge. Students need access to top educators in order to get the most from their university experiences. Universities cannot place the needs of the faculty above those of the students – that is not a sustainable system.
I also agree that a lot of low quality research is performed, though I would emphasize that all fields are capable of producing some truly ridiculous research. However, and I acknowledge this may be nit-picky about an “as-good-as-we-can-get-it” metric, I would prefer to judge research on its merits and not necessarily on the number of citations it can garner. While I see the value of using citations of tracking the impact of research since it can be a useful shorthand for the number of people having a conversation about the paper/the paper’s topic, citation numbers on their own give little information about the scope of the conversation or the impact of it. I also believe that good research can be boring research – it might not change the world that methodology X does not work under circumstances Y and Z, but it is useful for researchers to be aware of methodology X’s limitations. Much of this type of research is not published and it can be impossible to get at without access to individual labs or working groups who have the knowledge already and are willing to share it. The second one usually isn’t a problem, but the first one is.
Perhaps some of the problem of the costs of research interfering with teaching not outweighing the benefits garnered by the research could be addressed by switching the focus of research. There’s a huge push for things to be novel, and while I agree that re-treading the same path over and over again beyond the scope of replication helps no one, there is middle ground between mindless repetition and constant novelty. Emphasizing good quality research that adds some useful knowledge could increase the strength, scope, and impact of research findings. This in turn could actually translate to classroom benefits since students could see the impact of the work researchers were doing.
For me, I would not want to see the emphasis on research disappear entirely, but I am excited to see conversations popping up about the value of teaching and the role of the university. The pendulum has swung too far in the direction of research and it is now time for it to swing back to a more moderate approach to academia.