Teaching: Doing the Right Thing for the Wrong Reason

At my company (less in my unit of it), teaching is basically treated as a tax you have to pay to do your research, and faculty are hired and promoted for research and encouraged to avoid this tax where possible; indeed, one of our principal recruitment gestures is a reduced teaching load for the first couple of years. “Load”? I’m not going to further review the evidence for this summary here; I’m comfortable with the simple version. Its spirit is pervasive, in the details of our promotion and tenure practice (which are greatly at variance from official statements of policy and even from the formal rules that are supposed to govern it) and in the resources of all kinds invested in increasing student learning.

Hard on the heels of my plaint about science teaching generally, our teaching listserv just circulated an article from the belly of the super-competitive big-time science beast in the ASCB newsletter. David Botstein makes a series of good arguments, and I love hearing the case that we are not at the production possibility frontier of teaching and research from someone in his shoes. I think what he says about the complementarity of research and teaching is mostly correct.

But without disagreeing with his claims, this line of argument sort of makes me reach for my revolver, as I do when someone says we should have arts in the schools ‘because music helps kids learn math’, or have a symphony orchestra ‘because it’s good for economic development’. These arguments are (i) very risky; if it turned out that a dollar spent on another hour of (or better) math class increased math learning more than a dollar spent teaching violin, as is probably true, would that mean art is not worth doing? (ii) just wrong: art is not about learning math, it’s about art being worth doing and having for its own unique payoffs.

Teaching is costly in time and effort, and hard to do well. It’s worth it, so we should have a lot as we should of anything that’s a good deal. But its purpose, professor, is not advancing your research career (even if it has some payoff of that type), nor about its intrinsic non-research rewards for you. Teaching is about advancing the learning of students, including students who are not in college or even grad school to become you. What if the time required to teach a course would advance my research even more if I spent it in the lab and not on the course; wouldn’t Botstein either have to say, “OK, lose the teaching”, or fall back on reach up for a much higher-level version of his case?

This article has lots of useful insight, but justifying teaching by its peripheral benefits to research is an unnecessary concession to careerism. Teaching doesn’t have to be free of research cost to be worth doing well; the world would probably be better off if all the students in universities this year learned 10% more of everything (an easy target, the way we operate now) and only 85% of the research got done, even if that’s what it took. It would be enormously better off if 5% of our research effort were invested in improving learning, because the learning payoff would be way more than 5% given the infinitesimal base (of effort) we’re starting from.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Michael O’Hare

Michael O'Hare is a Professor of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley.