University Professors Teach Too Much

This series of four posts by William M. Briggs is pretty interesting stuff.

The kind of thing where I'm torn: is it the most brilliant and perceptive thing I've ever read about higher education or is it a series of slightly early April 1st posts?

Dear Internet, I really need all you people out there to help me figure this one out. Which way does it go.

And by the way, you really have to read all four posts to get the complete message. The comment streams are interesting too.

University Professors Teach Too Much: Part I

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.


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.

University Professors Teach Too Much: Part II

Requiring teachers to write papers is asking them to do what they are not good at. If they were good at it (and had the desire), they would be researchers and not teachers. Teachers are wasting time publishing an article in the South-by-Southwest Far East Asia Journal of Research: C when they could have been polishing a lecture, holding extra office hours, or in just plain reading. It is a waste because the paper will never be read by anybody except the one or two referees attached to the journal, and it fools the teacher into thinking he has been productive. It also fools the promotion committee (which obsessively counts papers) into thinking they are measuring the ability of the teacher to do his job.

Counting papers is like eating opium: it is an addiction everybody knows its wrong, but nobody can resist. It's only a wonder academics don't receive spam promising a "Proven method to grow your paper numbers. 7++ new citations! Make Deans scream in delight!!!"

University Professors Teach Too Much: Part III

Colleges themselves--which, I remind us, are to be separated from research institutes--should be broken in two: traditional college and technical or trade school (this break need only be administrative and not physical). As Russell Kirk tells us, college exists to impart wisdom, not knowledge, and certainly not information or even, as is by now commonplace, trivia. Trade schools should take students interested solely or mainly in obtaining a skill or a "degree", a talisman which they must emboss on their resume to get a job at one of the many non-contemplative and undiscerning companies which require them.

Incidentally, this purblind requirement of a "degree"--and not of knowledge or ability--is why there are too many kids going to college.

Trade school will encompass majors like "business", "marketing", "sports management", "diversity studies" of any kind, "communications", "journalism", "computer science", "health", "nursing", "art" of any stripe, "engineering", "security" (yes, it exists), "criminal science1", "hotel management", and so forth, which give students a taste--an amuse bouche, but no more--of the fields in which they will toil. Cosmetology and refrigeration schools have the right idea (I do not jest nor denigrate; these are useful, honest places).


College is not a place to learn a trade or skill of any kind. It is not job training. It is a place to think; rather, a place to learn how to think, to develop the habit of discernment. As Cardinal Newman said, college is a place to "open the mind, to correct it, to refine it, to enable it to know, and to digest, master, rule, and use its knowledge, to give it power over its own faculties, application, flexibility, method, critical exactness, sagacity, resource, address, [and] eloquent expression." College is the first step for those who would be future leaders.

University Professors Teach Too Much: Part IV

What Should Be Taught

I suggested (in Part III) that "computer science" students should be housed in trade schools and not college. This is because the vast majority of enrollees in this subject only want to secure a job in programming, web or game design, or the like. These earnest, honest folk really don't need to know more than the basics. (In a strange twist, professors, insisting on purity (and theory), won't teach what most of these kids want to learn. Teaching actual languages is seen as an left to trade schools?)

Hey! Wouldn't it be nice if computer students knew all about unsolvability, Turing tests, the theory of languages. It would indeed. It would also be nice if they knew all about differential equations, analysis, group theory, quantum chemistry, string theory, all the various niceties of electronic engineering, and so on, plus (for their customers) Spanish, Chinese, and French. And since no education would be complete without a thorough understanding of history, give 'em that. Shouldn't they know something about literature? And writing? And a slew of other subjects? Yes, absolutely. Let's well-round them!

I have to admit, I'm intrigued if not quite convinced.

I have some questions that perhaps the crowd can help me with:

  • How possible would it be to disentangle research from teaching in terms of government funding to the various types of institutions?
  • How would research time & effort be allocated for fields that don't have immediate practical application or sources of outside funding?
  • Are faculty so completely and uniformly convinced that research and undergraduate teaching don't somehow inform each other?
  • How much does the above vary by discipline?
  • Are students' real interests well served in this model?
  • Is the library's role in these types of institutions enhanced, diminished or about the same?



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I heard Steven Weinberg speak this weekend on dark matter and dark energy. What evidence does Briggs have that research is negatively correlated with teaching ability?

I'd go a step farther than Russell and say there is minimal, if any, relationship between teaching skills and research skills. My favorite teachers are all respected researchers and I've met more than enough scientists who are lousy at teaching and research. I also think a good teacher who is also a good researcher can bring valuable things into a classroom that a non-researcher simply can't.

Making a strict research/teaching divide is ridiculous. I see the real issue is incentives. I can't think of a single research university that would give a great teacher without a research program a stable and respected position. They often require researchers who are bad teachers to keep teaching while providing professional incentives or agressive help to help make them teach better.

If those incentives were changed, it would do a whole lot more good than trying to sort people into "teachers" or "researchers"

Teaching ability and research ability, as the previous commenters suggest, are two quite different skills, and there is no reason to think that any correlation (positive or negative) should exist. You will certainly find many professors in three of the four quadrants of the teaching-research plane (for obvious reasons, I would expect most scientists from the remaining quadrant to not make the professorial ranks in large numbers).

The conflict that comes about is that there is a strong emphasis, at least at R1 universities in the US, on research. If you're really bad at teaching, that can hurt you at tenure review time, but there seems to be no benefit to being a good teacher rather than a merely competent teacher. I know of at least one university where the award for excellence in teaching has a "kiss of death" reputation (several past recipients have not been awarded tenure).

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 31 Mar 2011 #permalink


Briggs doesn't need proof that focusing on research leads to poor teaching (though the scenario given is plausible). Briggs instead insists that those who are good at research should be doing what they are best at.

Briggs also doesn't insist researchers not teach; just that teaching should not be their focus. Research should not be the focus of teachers, teaching should be; and nothing would bar teachers from pursuing research as a sideline.

It's all pretty useless discussion when there are serious proposals to turn major research universities like Texas into "University of Phoenix" clones. The traditional research university has failed to sway the 1% of the rich who own 80% of the assets in the US. Therefore they will soon mostly be a thing of the past. I would guess we will have less than 1/2 the number we have now in 20 years.

Although I understand the reasoning, I disagree in quite a few ways. (Ironically, I remember thinking something similar to this at one time in the past.) But let me answer by using some of you questions as a guide to my most fundamental objections to these conclusions.

NOTE: I answer this based solely on your blog post and not actually reading the originals. I have encountered this idea before.

* Are faculty so completely and uniformly convinced that research and undergraduate teaching don't somehow inform each other? I doubt it, and I don't agree at all. I think that research informs teaching, and vice versa, a great deal.
* How much does the above vary by discipline? Probably a lot, but not so much that there isn't a benefit, although at least some of it will be indirect, and therefore less quantifiable.
* Are students' real interests well served in this model? No. Because whether you do a trade school or college, we are all benefited if the students learn how to think. And an overemphasis on teaching vs. research means that some students will learn how to do the trade but never learn how to think, whereas other students will learn how to think without any practical application to the ability, so ivory-towered that they are useless. I do not think that a system that would allow students to "just get by" without really learning is at all desirable. In fact, it is dangerous.

I do agree that the system could benefit from some changes, so that those with more teaching ability rather than less are equally respected with those who are better at research. But the wrongness in the system does not change what I consider the underlying philosophy, which is that being able to research and think is just as important as the ability to do and earn a living.

And just to take it into a slightly different realm: A democracy is based on the idea of an informed citizenry -- an uninformed and unthinking citizenry is a thing of terror.

I am intrigued more by the second part of the argument, that trade schools and traditional colleges go their separate ways in order to better serve students who seek two entirely different outcomes in their educations. This is the manner of the (Fach)hochschule/Universität differentiation in Germany and some surrounding countries. In the former educational setting, students are given a more technical education to prepare them for industries such as business, engineering or chemistry in a manner that acknowledges the complexity of these trades and the advanced knowledge needed to perform them. In the latter, students may study for a more scholastic view of their discipline, which could include literature, history, or even chemistry with an academic/research (rather than practical) focus. This seems similar to what the original author suggests and allows for those who desire to study the same subject in different ways to do so.

Thanks, for the comments, everyone. Keep 'em coming.

You all are really helping me figure out what I think about these issues. I think what really bothered me initially about the Briggs posts was their passive-aggressive tone, a kind of smugness. I'm probably reading too much into it and as I write this I think I might need another read through the posts to see if my unease is justified.