The Professoriate's Resistance To Teaching and Service

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There is wonderful irony in decrying the state of K-12 education and then recommending that the university has no stake in trying to improve it.

A few years ago an "ad hoc" campuswide faculty committee in a large, prestigious land-grant university in California was appointed to provide recommendations for reductions and cost savings in the university's academic programs. Among the introductory remarks prefacing its various recommendations, the committee proffered the standard professorial lament regarding the woeful state of preparation of entering undergraduates and then, practically on the next page, recommended the "disestablishment" of the university's school of education and the cessation of the university's involvement in the preparation of K-12 teachers. Cutting through the verbiage, the committee's basic rationale was that the university should not be involved in the training of teachers; that such a function more properly belonged with other, lesser institutions.

In responding to this recommendation a number of individuals, both on and off the campus, pointed out the wonderful irony of decrying the state of K-12 education and then recommending that the university had no stake in trying to improve it. Others, including influential area legislators, pointed to the arrogance and ignorance of a recommendation which, in effect, suggested that a publicly supported land-grant institution had no responsibility to serve the public. Suffice it to say, this particular recommendation was decisively discredited and officially rejected by both faculty and administrative decisionmakers.

To me, what is most troubling about the above scenario is the fact that a significant number of faculty members at this particular land-grant university (and I suspect at many others), were either ignorant or disdainful of two of the legally mandated triad of functions traditionally charged to such institutions. That triad comprises research, community service, and teaching responsibilities. But, as exemplified by the committee's recommendation, these functions are certainly not viewed as being co-equals. Rather, they are seen by many faculty members as existing in a hierarchical construct with research enjoying the ascendant status of "end-all, be-all"; teaching a distant second; and community service something that might be given a fleeting, if somewhat disdainful, afterthought.

Such a mentality has led to an institutional culture in academe in which promotion, tenure, status, and influence are impacted most profoundly by whatever the professoriate deigns to be scholarly "research" while considerations related to teaching and service lag far behind. It is no secret that the academic career of an individual with an excellent record of teaching and/or service, but who is without the requisite record in research, will be severely stunted. Conversely, marginal accomplishments in teaching and service will be of little handicap or concern to the individual who possesses a good research record.

One could perhaps make the case that research is indeed more important than either teaching or service if the definition of research were strictly limited to the creation, discovery, or substantive extension of significant knowledge. Who can argue against the incredible importance of ordered study, inquiry, and investigation that result in new insights, discoveries, and advancements in medicine, science, and mathematics? There can be no debate that the experimental researchers who make such contributions deserve support, status, and reward.

The problem, however, is that the definition of "research" in the university often has little to do with any of the above. In order to be able to extend the mantle of "researcher" to the professoriate in the humanities and other liberal studies that do not lend themselves to experimental research, its definition has been transmogrified to include activities such as: preaching (publishing) to an intradisciplinary choir in an obscure, but "refereed" journal wherein authors incestuously cite each others' work; re-counting, re-sorting, and reconfiguring opinions or existing data into a "new" report; critiquing or "deconstructing" someone else's work into one's own version for one's own purposes; writing and receiving a "research" grant no matter how derivative or inconsequential the purposes of the grant (in fact, merely receiving the grant often qualifies one as a "worthy researcher" even before any work is done or reviewed).

Certainly, publication, surveys, criticism, and grant-writing are important and in many cases very scholarly activities, but are they truly research and, more important, are they more worthy of collegial and institutional support, status, and reward than excellence in teaching and important service to the community?

I would predict that if the definition of "researcher" were to be restricted to the laboratories of the hard sciences and, if, concomitantly, activities such as journal publication, survey work, critiquing, and grant-writing were no longer legitimized by being described as "research," but rather had to find their justification in contributions to teaching and service, then very quickly the current hierarchical structure of support, status, and reward favoring research would be reshaped into a more "flattened" structure wherein the teaching and service functions of the university would also be considered worthy scholarly activities.

The late Ernest L. Boyer, in his 1990 book, Scholarship Reconsidered, argues for a reinvention and reinvigoration of the professoriate and thereby the university, so that greater value accrues to society. Mr. Boyer conceptualizes the work of the professoriate "as having four separate, yet overlapping, functions." These four functions, he writes, are the following: the scholarship of discovery (research); the scholarship of integration (making connections across the disciplines); the scholarship of application (service, applying knowledge to consequential problems); and the scholarship of teaching (educating and enticing future scholars).

By elevating teaching and community service to the level now reserved exclusively for research, the professoriate of our land-grant universities can show awareness and appreciation of the fact that levels of support for the university are tied to public and legislative perceptions of the worth of what the university contributes to society. If, however, university faculty members cannot bring themselves to make such changes, then perhaps we can at least hope that they are wise enough never again to suggest that involvement in crucial public issues is not an appropriate function of a public university.

Vol. 16, Issue 39, Page 43

Published in Print: June 25, 1997, as The Professoriate's Resistance To Teaching and Service
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