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CAUT Bulletin Archives

September 2007

Teaching Must Not Be Trumped by Research

By Sandy Hershcovis
Whenever I feel skeptical, as I occasionally do, about whether I can truly have an impact on my students’ educational experience, I need only reflect on my own undergraduate experience and the teacher who changed my life. I then feel better equipped to resist the tendency within most North American universities to subjugate teaching to research.

I was fortunate enough to have had many good teachers, but one in particular stood out above the rest. I struggle to determine an adequate label for the person whom I now strive to emulate in my own teaching. Terms such as mentor or teacher seem inadequate for this individual, who took time out of a busy schedule that included research, administration and teaching, to mentor a student who would likely be only a fleeting person in her life.

Nine years ago, she was my undergraduate professor in managerial accounting. She gave me my lowest grade in all my undergraduate education, and to this day I could not tell you how to do a variance or cost-volume-profit analysis. Even though she taught me those things nine years ago, what she left me with was the enduring knowledge that one teacher can have a life-altering effect on his or her students, merely by taking the time to build an individualized connection with them. She taught me her subject with great passion, she mentored me when I was struggling with career choices, she guided me when I was choosing graduate schools to apply to, she supported me when I made mistakes, and she cheered me on when I succeeded. She is the teacher I will always strive to become.

Regrettably, this kind of teacher is rare in most universities. I think most professors across all faculties in research-oriented North American universities would agree that contrary to public perception, the most important aspect of a professor’s job is not their role as a teacher. Professors all too often perceive and treat teaching as that disruptive part of their job that takes away from research. To our credit, we cannot be blamed for this view of our work because every aspect of our job, beginning with our training in our doctoral programs, subjugates teaching to research. We have been conditioned to believe that to be successful in our profession, teaching must take a backseat to research.

If outsiders to the profession were to examine the doctoral education of a professor, they might be shocked to learn that many professors are never required to take a teaching course in their doctoral program. At least four years of doctoral education, and virtually 100 per cent of it focuses on how to conduct rigorous research. More commonly, PhD students gain teaching experience by teaching a class at some point during their doctoral education. However, many research schools try to “shield” PhD students from teaching because it distracts them from their research. When students are required to teach, it is usually because the school is funding their PhDs, and in exchange students must repay the university by teaching in the undergraduate program.

A PhD student dare not hint to their advisor that their main objective on graduation is to teach. At a minimum, the advisor would not invest any further in the student’s development as a researcher. Conference funding would suddenly become unavailable to the student and research assistant positions would go to more deserving, research-oriented students. More appallingly, some advisors would drop the student or alienate the student to the point that he or she voluntarily seeks a different advisor or drops the program altogether.

Upon graduation, a well-behaved student will seek a position at a research-oriented university. This is generally defined by the number of courses a professor must teach in a given year, with a load of four courses per year being the absolute maximum for a university to be considered a research university. Then the new professor must work towards tenure. It would be rare indeed for a professor to be denied tenure for achieving consistently poor teaching ratings so long as they produced high-quality research.

In contrast, a professor who teaches extraordinarily well, and who obtains consistently high ratings, would almost certainly be denied tenure if he or she could not demonstrate a pattern of high-quality research. “Publish or perish” is the phrase to live or die by in this profession and, as a result, students often (although not always) receive the short end of the stick.

Professors are simply not rewarded for good teaching. I came across an all-too-truthful articulation of this fact recently after reading a posting on the website. A student posted a note asking professors for advice on the best way of writing a note to the dean about one of her professors. She enjoyed his class and wanted to write a note that would help him get tenure. A professor from Harvard University dishearteningly replied to the student with the following: “I will tell you the God’s honest truth (and someone here will probably vociferously disagree), and that is that teaching is not terribly important in education (as far as promotions go at least). You move through the ranks in most fields by getting published, writing grants, etc. Teaching is sort of a go/no-go deal . . . can you do it or can’t you?”

Although sometimes I feel cynical, I must emphasize that many of my colleagues put a great deal of effort into their teaching and are very successful teachers. But the manner in which many fields in the university environment have institutionalized the marginalization of teaching is something I struggle with. When I consider the manner in which one exceptional teacher so positively affected my life, I cannot help but feel it is a moral imperative of teaching institutions to strive for excellence in both teaching and research.

After all, were it not for at least one extraordinary teacher, many of us would not be researchers in the first place.

Sandy Hershcovis is an assistant professor of business administration in the I.H. Asper School of Business at the University of Manitoba.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily CAUT.

Commentary: CAUT welcomes articles between 800 and 1,500 words on contemporary issues directly related to post-secondary education. Articles should not deal with personal grievance cases nor with purely local issues. They should not be libellous or defamatory, abusive of individuals or groups, and should not make unsubstantiated allegations. They should be objective and on a political rather than a personal subject. A commentary is an opinion and not a “life story.” First person is not normally used. Articles may be in English or French, but will not be translated. Publication is at the sole discretion of CAUT. Commentary authors will be contacted only if their articles are accepted for publication. Commentary submissions should be sent to Liza Duhaime.

Les opinions exprimées sont celles des auteurs et ne reflètent pas nécessairement la position officielle de l’ACPPU.

Commentaires destinés à la rubrique Tribune libre : L’ACPPU invite les lecteurs à soumettre des articles de 800 à 1 500 mots qui portent sur des questions d’actualité liées directement à l’enseignement postsecondaire. Les articles ne doivent traiter ni de dossiers de griefs particuliers ni de questions d’intérêt strictement local. Ils ne doivent pas comporter des allégations non fondées ni des propos diffamants, calomniateurs ou offensants envers des personnes ou des groupes. Les articles doivent être empreints d’une objectivité totale et aborder des sujets de nature politique plutôt que personnelle. Un commentaire est avant tout l’expression d’une opinion et non pas le « récit d’une vie ». Il convient normalement de le formuler à la première personne. Les articles peuvent être soumis en français ou en anglais, mais ils ne seront pas traduits. L'ACPPU se réserve le droit de choisir les articles qui seront publiés. La rédaction ne communiquera avec les auteurs de commentaires que si elle décide de publier leurs articles. Les commentaires doivent être envoyés à Liza Duhaime.