Teaching needs priority
If we talk about "Teaching Within a Research University," (the title of tomorrow's Institute-wide colloquium), we're addressing the wrong question. We're uncritically allowing something called "research" to be center-stage, while "teaching" is seen as some sort of peripheral add-on. By defining a university in terms of "research" rather than "learning" -- under which teaching and research should surely both naturally fall -- the debate is framed in such a way as to maintain an unhealthy status quo.
If one thing is clear about today's "research" universities, it's that they spend precious little time dealing with matters which are universal in scope. The pressures of narrowly directed research mean that there is scant opportunity to roam over those questions which seem most essential -- the very questions likely to be of most value to the next generation of inquiring minds.
In the "research" university, the demands for "learning" in an integrated sense fall prey to the paper chase for money, prestige and tenure. A large proportion of MIT faculty must raise part of their salary from outside support. This need for funding leads to research which is likely to please sponsors, rather than to advance the general state of knowledge. Perhaps that is why there are many more professors who can help teach their students how to blow each other up rather than discuss how to live together in harmony and peace.
The competition for tenure lays great store on the volume of refereed journal articles, which helps explain why so many journals are full of the ephemeral and inconsequential. Much published work is divorced from the fundamental and general, and is of little interest except to the handful of like-minded specialists who plough through the reams of usually-illiterate material produced month after month.
The financial demands for specialization cause work to be focused in undesirable ways. With the world of knowledge divided into ever-smaller compartments, sight is lost of the subject as a whole, and less effort is expended on research which is also likely to be vital to teaching. In this way, faculty become distanced from the needs of people entering the profession. Research specialization leads to teaching specialization. Too many of today's courses are of a narrowly-focused nature. Too few take students to a higher rung on the ladder of knowledge.
Perhaps it would be naive to hope for the long-gone day of the philosopher thinking great thoughts and testing them out on students from whom, in turn, he or she can learn. But the tenure system accentuates the separation of the needs of academic and student. "Teachers" do not realize that they are also "students" united with their younger colleagues in a single enterprise of learning. The tenure-track professor instead becomes part of a factory-like production line whose world of grant proposals, product deadlines and journal submissions is punctuated by the unwanted rhythm of teaching duties, disconnected from the rewards of money and tenure.
Not only is teaching peripheral; in some cases the demands of money-seeking and administering leave too little time for actual academic research, which is delegated to graduate students who exist at the subservient end of a taskmaster-to-slave relationship. Undergraduate UROPs, meanwhile, too often become a cheap form of labor to perform the dirty work nobody else wants to touch. The artificial def
inition of a university in terms of "research," and, in particular, in terms of outside-sponsored research, is a prescription for a troubled education system.
Despite the maladies of the system, there are
many faculty at MIT who make significant contributions to education and to knowledge in general. They do so in spite of the system, not because they are supported by it. There are faculty who go to great lengths to keep up with their field as a whole so as to both invigorate and provide context for their teaching. There are others who spend long hours putting together presentations which are intriguing, whether or not they get tenure "brownie points" for their efforts. Others, too, spend time advancing their students' careers, ensuring that research work is as valuable to the students as to the professors' projects. But far from all faculty behave in this way.
For the minority of educationally-concerned professors to become a majority, the nature of the university and its mission must change. In the short run, it may help to give faculty more credit for effective teaching and to make teaching evaluation a more visible element in the tenure evaluation process. Both are possible, and both can only be encouraged by colloquia such as tomorrow's.
But as long as the modern university is conceived in terms of a research-product production line, tenure and the activities associated with achieving it will remain centered on narrow research accomplishments, which can be readily measured in terms of monetary input and journal output. The goals of education will remain at odds with those of research.
For fundamental change to occur the task of the university must revert to "learning" in general. The search for knowledge must shift gears, providing more time to build breadth around depth and to promote reflection, not just calculation. In that way, teaching and research can blur their boundaries under the general spirit of learning, and perhaps relevance and meaning can be introduced to both.
For this to occur, however, junior faculty would need to be relieved of at least a part of the burden of grant-chasing and journal article-writing under which they now must labor. That is unlikely to happen on any large scale, not only because the present system is entrenched in its ways, but because money is short and MIT depends for its existence on outside sponsorship.
The late Margaret L. A MacVicar '65, former dean of undergraduate education at MIT, said: "It is not technicians that we seek to prepare, nor bench-tied engineers practicing narrow specialties." Yet that is exactly what the present tenure system demands.
"Our purpose," MacVicar continued, "is to direct the best minds towards inquiries and enterprises concerned with the human condition." To avoid ending on a pessimistic note, let me make one suggestion which might promote change for a minority of faculty, if not for all.
It would be a fitting tribute to MacVicar for MIT to appoint "teaching fellowships" to those junior faculty who teach with most enthusiasm and distinction and with most regard for their students. Let them be relieved of the burden of bringing in research funding, giving them more time not only for teaching activities but for a broader kind of research which might in turn feed more effective teaching and a greater sense of "learning" for all. Tenure decisions would invariably still be based on research, but it might be a different kind of research, one which -- along with their teaching -- would show greater freshness.
Tech Senior Editor Jonathan Richmond received his PhD degree from MIT in June 1991.