Professors, publishing and perishing

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Teachers in major universities know if they do not publish articles in academic journals, or write books for important publishers, they probably won’t get tenure. This often limits the amount of time that can be devoted to students. Conversely, small liberal arts colleges pride themselves on the personal attention professors give students. These places emphasize teaching and advising; students are not allowed to perish while professors often sequester themselves in offices behind closed doors.

I feel some ambivalence about this issue. I did my undergraduate work at Pacific College (now Fresno Pacific University), where professors were accessible and invited students into their homes. Outside of classes, teachers were available to discuss course-related issues or simply talk about life in general. This was very important for social and intellectual reasons.
I had a very different experience in graduate school at a University of California campus. Professors there had office hours, but they were limited and heavily scheduled; each teacher had hundreds of students waiting. This, plus the demands of required research, meant less time for teaching, conversation and advising. The only exception made was for graduate students.

This matter is extremely important to current and future college and university students, as well as their families and all American citizens, who pay taxes that support public and private post-secondary institutions. Our society benefits when young people, who ultimately become scientific, business and political leaders, have excellent academic preparation. Insufficient attention to the teaching/research dilemma has lead the United States to increasingly come up short in terms of intellectual achievement—which often translates into economic accomplishment—when compared to other developed countries and (most recently) China.
At Pacific in the early 1970s a few teachers were actively engaged in research. They published at least minimally and attended academic conferences. One professor took two of us to a history conference in San Francisco, where we were introduced to a culture of intellectual interchange. These face-to-face contacts were extremely important to relevant, up-to-date teaching.

But in general, at smaller colleges fewer professors do research and those that are publish much less than colleagues at large universities. They have more classes to teach and spend more time with students. This does not mean they do not read widely, think deeply. But they often do so independently, without being critiqued by outside peers.

There needs to be a balance: accessible professors devoted to teaching and advising, who are simultaneously doing research. Professors should be evaluated on all aspects of “scholarship.” This is the practice of the university to which I am connected, where increasing numbers of teachers are well-known in their academic fields, through conference attendance and publication. I recommend this teaching/research balance for the following reasons:

  • Intellectual honesty and credibility— It is important not to ask students to do more than you are willing to do yourself. If you ask students to bear their souls in poetry assignments, you should be willing to bear your soul to them as well. If you ask students to conduct interviews and engage in research, you should have (somewhat recently) done the same.
  • Motivation— Personal involvement in research projects is motivational for teachers and, indirectly, for students. It creates more passionate instructors and nurtures the same spirit in students.
  • Clarification of concepts —Published research forces greater attention to detail, to the logical construction of arguments and proper attention to up-to-date sources. The process of peer review is essential and basic.
  • Professional exchange of ideas —Involvement in academic conferences means intellectual interaction. Among other things, it exposes your work to others and brings to light false premises and inadequate arguments.

Having said this, it is also true that research takes time and, often, money. Doing research at the same time that one teaches and counsels may affect relationships with family and friends. Universities need to ensure that teaching loads are not research-prohibitive and that financial resources are available.

Teaching and research are both important endeavors; in fact they are integrally connected. In an ideal world professors do not perish simply because they do not publish enough and students do not perish as their professors try to meet tenure-driven publication requirements. Society will benefit when the college and university instructors who mentor younger generations are not only knowledgeable, but available.

Rod Janzen is senior scholar at Fresno Pacific University. Recent publications include “The Hutterites and the Bruderhof,” Mennonite Quarterly Review (October 2005), The Rise and Fall of Synanon: A California Utopia (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001); and The Prairie People: Forgotten Anabaptists (The University Press of New England, 1999).

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