Universities' Strange Obsession with Research

My math tutor is great: I spend a couple of hours banging my head on some dense mathematical text, and he shows up and explains it to me in about two minutes. And although he hasn't finished his PhD yet, he was recently hired as an adjunct by a top New York university because of his outstanding teaching reviews.

His own research? I have no idea about it; why should I care? I am not asking him to train me as a mathematics researcher, just to help me grasp the ideas I need for my work. Focusing on publishing when hiring faculty makes sense for positions at research universities where training graduate students who are going to specialize in the field, i.e., do their own research, is the main responsibility. But for faculty at liberal arts schools teaching microeconomics I, or calculus, or intro to chemistry, or basic Italian, it makes no sense at all. What does it matter to any student taking Calculus I how often the lecturer has published?


  1. Two things come immediately to mind:

    * In the current academic job market, even small schools can get people who do both well.

    * I think many small schools believe (perhaps foolishly) that by hiring people with good research programs, they can bring in grant money. And indeed it is true that it is easier to get, e.g., NSF grants if you are at an undergraduate-oriented institution, though I don't know how much of that money ends up going to schools below the Williams-Amherst-Reed-Harvey Mudd level.

    Finally, although you're right that Calc. I students absolutely could care less about their professor's research program (or lack thereof), it's not entirely true that it's irrelevant to a teaching-oriented institution. I wish that my own undergrad alma mater -- which is a small liberal arts school -- had required its faculty to be a little bit more research-active; there were tenured faculty there that had never published a research paper! Of course that never particularly bothered me as an undergrad, but once I got to grad school I realized very quickly that they could have done a much better job preparing me to go to grad school if they'd been a bit more current and engaged with the research world.

    Now obviously most students don't go to grad school, but to the extent that schools are interested in preparing their best students for grad school, I think it probably is a good idea to have at least some research-active faculty around.

    1. " In the current academic job market, even small schools can get people who do both well. "

      But they do not always succeed.

      "I think it probably is a good idea to have at least some research-active faculty around."

      Absolutely! But let's have some teaching-oriented faculty as well.

  2. "But they do not always succeed."

    Sure, but no organization is ever 100% successful in only making good hires. My point was just that schools can reasonably expect to find good teachers who also have credible research programs, if that's what they want. If they're failing to hire good teachers, it's because they're doing a bad job of evaluating candidates.

    "Absolutely! But let's have some teaching-oriented faculty as well."

    So far as I can tell, *every* department (outside of maybe the Harvards and Princetons of the world) has teaching-oriented faculty. And everybody I know that teaches at a liberal arts school has teaching as their first priority, even if they also have research interests.

    I guess there are a couple of things that I don't really understand about the original post.

    First, the implication that liberal arts schools are obsessed with publications to the exclusion of all else. Having been an undergrad at one such school, taught at another, and been interviewed by several more, I just don't believe that's the case. Maybe there are isolated (and wrongheaded) examples, but I don't think it's a general phenomenon.

    Second, the implicit premise that people who do research can't be excellent teachers. Again, I disagree and dozens of counterexamples come immediately to mind.

    1. "First, the implication that liberal arts schools are obsessed with publications to the exclusion of all else."

      Nope: it is that I don't understand why they worry about it at all. I recall reading about several of the top idealist philosophers at Cambridge who were loved by their students but never wrote anything. Today they'd probably have to work at a community college instead of at Cambridge. Oh, and there's Socrates, who never published a word! No position for him!

      "Second, the implicit premise that people who do research can't be excellent teachers."

      No, there is just no such implicit premise in my post. I consider myself a good disproof of this idea, by the way! And I have met many other people good at both.

      It is a matter of focus, of marginal trade-offs. And I think they are being made wrongly.

    2. In other words, you have evaluated my post as an either / or, while what I am actually talking about is moving the margin. When sabermetrics started, the sabermetricians were noting that hiring was based too much on home runs, and not enough on making contact and getting on base.

      It would be a wrong-headed response to their complaint to say, "Oh, so you think baseball today only hires home-run hitters and pays absolutely no attention to people who get on base, and you want to have no one who can hit home runs on any roster!"

      Their critique was about shifting where the trade-offs are made, but the response treats it as if only corner solutions exist.

    3. Okay, but "I don't understand why [liberal arts schools] worry about [publications] at all" sounds to me like a sabermetrician saying "I don't understand why baseball teams worry about home runs at all".

      The claim expressed in the post is that teaching should be more important in the hiring process than research. For example, this interpretation is consistent with the statement that "Focusing on publishing when hiring faculty ... makes no sense at all".

      But this is already the case! As someone with considerable recent experience with hiring practices in math departments at liberals arts colleges and other undergraduate-oriented institutions, I feel pretty confident in saying that such schools are primarily interested in a potential hire's teaching, and only secondarily in their research program.

      So, given that the desires expressed in the post already accord with reality, I've been trying to figure out what you're complaining about, and the only explanation I could come up with was that you actually don't think research should be considered at all in hiring at liberal arts schools. This is indeed an either/or interpretation of your post (since you either consider research or you don't), but given that you just said "I don't understand why they worry about it at all", I'd say it was pretty accurate.

    4. "So, given that the desires expressed in the post already accord with reality..."

      Well, perhaps maths departments are different: this has not been my experience.

    5. For instance, Shonk, I was recently browsing a Facebook discussion amongst social scientists about an editorial where an adjunct complained that despite being an excellent teacher, he could not get full time work. Almost every single poster mocked the guy: "Did you see his publication record? Two publications in a decade!" They didn't care how good he was at teaching: bad pub record = no job!

    6. Those social scientists sound like real jerks, and it doesn't really sound like the reaction I would expect mathematicians (at least, mathematicians with an understanding of the context of liberal arts colleges) would have.

      Just to give you something concrete to consider, here is a (semi-randomly chosen) job listing for a tenure-track assistant professorship in mathematics at a public liberal arts college. You can usually tell what departments are looking for by reading the first sentence of the "what we're looking for" section. Notice that here the first sentence says they are looking for "a pure mathematician who is passionate about teaching and is dedicated to working with undergraduate students" and doesn't mention research at all. This is a very strong hint that teaching is the overwhelming priority at this school (another big hint being that the teaching load is 12 hours per semester).

      In fact, the only mention of any research-related activity anywhere in that job listing is where they say that "the successful candidate will also develop a program of continuing scholarship in which the inclusion of undergraduates is encouraged". There's a lot of coded language packed into this sentence, but I would argue that this also demonstrates their commitment to teaching over research.

      I'm not sure how much of the code translates outside math, so I apologize for explaining things which may well be obvious:

      First, the phrases "the successful candidate" and "will also develop" are interesting. The "successful candidate" thing is telling you that this sentence is about tenure. And "will also develop" is letting you know that if you don't have a research program or aren't particularly interested in writing research papers for math journals, it's not a problem, there are other ways to meet this requirement and that they will probably help you in developing this part of your tenure packet.

      Second, using "program of continuing scholarship" rather than "research program" is definitely code for "this does not need to be research papers in mathematics journals". In practice, it's very common to meet such expectations by way of scholarship in teaching and learning, publishing case studies on classroom experiments, developing and disseminating innovative new curricula, etc. Which is to say, you can meet the scholarship expectations by actively trying to become a better teacher and writing about it.

      Finally, "inclusion of undergraduates is encouraged" is basically saying that if you do want to write math research papers, you should really be involving students...after all, educating students is really your primary responsibility.

      Now, of course one data point does not prove much of anything, but (as someone who very recently was carefully parsing hundreds of job listings in math) I think this is reasonably typical of tenure-track job listings for a fairly large class of schools. I'll spare you the exegesis, but here is a listing for a tenure-track position at a private liberal arts college which again really emphasizes the priority of teaching in their hiring.


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