THE BLOG

Are Teaching and Research Mutually Exclusive?

02/26/2014 08:49 pm ET | Updated Apr 28, 2014

I say research and teaching are ... inseparable. And they are symbiotic (Nobel Laureate Roald Hoffmann)

Recently after Adam Grant proposed that tenure should be awarded for good teaching as well as good research, I thought about his claim that research showed that, "In all fields and all kinds of colleges, there was little connection between research productivity and teaching ratings by students and peers."

Of this study, Saul Teukolsky, Cornell's Hans A. Bethe Professor of Astronomy and Physics, writes: "The study he cites basically lumps together many levels of teaching in many kinds of institutions (not restricted to research universities) and finds little connection between teaching and research. No surprise: You don't have to be a strong researcher to do a good job of teaching freshman calculus or freshman composition. Since most university teaching is at the freshman level, this is the effect the study finds. But in my experience the strongest teachers of upper-level undergrad courses and graduate courses tend to be the strongest researchers. Of course there are exceptions, but statistically I believe this is true."

I am not a social scientist and am basing what follows on my 46 years of college teaching in the humanities, mostly at Cornell but with a few visiting professorships at state universities. I have been fortunate to have won Cornell's major teaching awards and have had some success as scholar.

The connection between teaching and research depends on a number of variables including where one teaches, how many courses one teaches, what the teaching expectations are, what field one teaches in, and what kind of students one teaches. It also depends on the criteria by which one rates teachers. But what is clear is that those who do research find a strong relationship between their teaching and research, and in most cases that teaching includes undergraduate teaching. As Ron Ehrenberg, Cornell's Irving M. Ives Professor of Industrial and Labor Relations and Economics and an authority on higher education, puts it, "Put simply, my research enhances my undergrad teaching and my undergrad teaching enhances my research."

My own experience as a teacher-scholar in the humanities makes me skeptical of the claim that there is no relation between effective teaching and effective research. As Beth Newman, Associate Professor of English and Director of Women's and Gender Studies at SMU, stresses, "[T[he kind of knowledge dispensed in the humanities requires significant investment in producing that knowledge: "We do not produce tangible or marketable goods but knowledge. And that knowledge must not be confused with information. It is more often interpretation, in its broadest sense of re-framing of other knowledge for new social and cultural contexts. It is difficult to invest intellectually in this knowledge and to keep current in it, and therefore, to teach it responsibly to others, if one is not also producing it at some level."

It has been my impression that at Cornell and peer institutions, the most esteemed and productive scholars in the humanities have been for decades the most effective teachers, especially for the best students. But I decided to ask a number of colleagues in diverse fields--humanists, social scientists, and scientists--what they thought about the relationship between their own teaching and research, virtually all of them expressed the view that their teaching and research were strongly inter-related.

For me, there has always been a strong correlation between my teaching and writing. In a classroom, one learns to organize material, articulate it lucidly and precisely, and defend one's ideas, and that is also what one does when presenting research. To be sure, I have given many presentations based on my research at academic conferences and in other venues, but the often small audiences at conferences there do not always test you as much as a bright and informed group of graduate students or advanced undergraduates. Thus teacher-scholars in the humanities often test their hypotheses in the classroom before bringing them to conferences or submitting them to journals.

I am fortunate to teach in the humanities at a university where I have time to do research and where there is a strong relationship between what I study and what I teach. Indeed much of my scholarship derives from my teaching experience. Right now, I am working on a book on the European novel since 1900 that will include a chapter on Proust's Swann's Way. My reading and thinking about Proust informs what I bring to my current graduate seminar on Joyce's Ulysses in terms of narrative theory, and the experience of testing my ideas there is helping my understanding of Proust's narrative strategies.

Most of Cornell's best scholars in diverse fields believe that teaching helps their research. Nobel Laureate Professor of Chemistry emeritus Roald Hoffmann writes: "I have thought about [the relation between teaching and research] over the years, and overall reached the conclusion that it works in both directions, and importantly for me, teaching introductory chemistry has made me a better researcher." Cornell Professor of Mathematics Louis Billera writes compellingly about how even properly taught introductory classes are informed by the need to explain how specific material fits into the context of a larger field: "Early on, I noticed that my research benefitted each time I taught a course I hadn't taught before. Organizing a subject in order to teach it, especially to undergraduates, meant you had to really know it, not just have what we call 'a nodding acquaintance' with the material (which means you can nod sagely when hearing a colloquium lecture about it). Conversely, I think it is important to know where a subject is going as well as where it has been to be a truly effective teacher. Those not involved in research tend not to know much, if anything, about the former. Where a subject is going, which includes how it might be used, is essential to get and keep student attention, again, especially that of undergraduates."

What follows is not, I hope, a boastogram, but an informal account of my own experience. Had I not taught James Joyce's Ulysses many times and worked through my approach in a classroom, I would not have been able to write Reading Joyce's Ulysses. Following my mantra, "Always the text, Always historicize," teaching other modern writers--including Joseph Conrad, Wallace Stevens, D.H. Lawrence, T.S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, and E.M. Forster--certainly helped in writing chapters and books about them. Doing research--learning these writers' historical contexts, their lives, and the ways they have chosen to present their material--immeasurably helped my teaching. Much of my literary and cultural research has been shaped by the interaction of studying the aforementioned authors' work and my presenting what I have discovered to both graduate and undergraduate students. Indeed, one of the joys of teaching is learning something new every day both in the preparation of classes and in the insightful response of students.

Years ago during the high tide of Deconstruction I wrote an influential book on the history and practice of the Anglo-American literary method and theory as it pertained to fiction. I refined the ideas for the book not only in upper class and graduate classes but also in an informal colloquium attended by graduate students with whom I was working and anyone else who wanted to come. Directing several Summer Seminars for College Teachers for the NEH gave me chance to present the ideas for the aforementioned book. Later, teaching NEH Summer Seminars contributed to the book I wrote in the 1990s about the relationship between modern art and modern literature.

When I write for a professional audience or for lay readers, I write as a teacher imagining my audience as those interested in knowing what I have learned. What effective teachers and good scholars have in common is a joy in the process of learning and of sharing what they have learned with others.

My Cornell colleague George Hutchinson, Newton C. Farr Professor of American Culture, observes: "My book on the Harlem Renaissance resulted from teaching African American literature surveys on the one hand and advanced courses on Whitman and the American Renaissance on the other. I wanted to see how these fields intersected and it resulted in that book." He adds: "Every time I teach a course, I teach some stuff I've never taught or even read before, and in the process of preparing to teach it and then actually teaching it, I do research, take notes, perform in class, and then take stock of where I've ended up. Even if I never end up writing an article about the new text I've just taught, I learn a lot from teaching it and it adds to my knowledge of the fields in which I am engaged."

Research has also driven my own syllabi. As soon as Imre Kertesz won the Nobel Prize in Literature, I put Fatelesnesss in my syllabus for my "Imagining the Holocaust" seminar even though I had not yet read it. If my past work and book on Holocaust memoirs, dairies, novels, and films, helped me interpret Fatelessnes, teaching it brought me new insights. As I learned more about Woolf, Forster, and Wilde for my books on Modernism, my syllabus for my lecture class changed. A few years ago I gave an invited lecture on Darwin and Modern Literature, and realized much of what I though I knew about Darwin's theory of evolution was out of date, and that affected my presentation of intellectual and cultural history in the same course.

Curiosity, the desire to share knowledge, and enthusiasm for watching young adults develop their potential are essential to effective teaching at the college level. Similar qualities drive research. Good scholars must find ways to convince other scholars that their scholarship matters and that their findings are to be taken seriously, and this presentation of research is a kind of teaching. Indeed, as Nicholas Kristof has argued, for researchers to reach our to larger audiences and be public intellectuals, they must be lucid writers and not simply produce dry scholarship dressed up in a incomprehensible jargon: (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/16/opinion/sunday/kristof-professors-we-need-you.html).

I have always been skeptical about a scholar from another field who can't tell me in layman terms what she or he is doing. If the scholar's explanation is so abstruse, how is that person going to teach undergraduates--or even graduates-- to say nothing of freshmen?

Often the best teachers leave a mark that lasts for decades, sometimes in ways that can't be quantified, such as arousing an interest in literature, art and music that grows into a passion or arousing a desire to find scientific and technological answers to significant problems and perhaps contribute to solving issues that sustain life. Truly inspiring teachers--who, among other wonderful results, often teach students to become teacher-scholars-- are unforgettable and accompany us throughout our lives.

Author of the well-received 2012 book Endtimes? Crises and Turmoil at the New York Times (Excelsior Editions of SUNY Press (which recently appeared in an updated 2014 new paperback edition) Daniel R. Schwarz is Frederic J. Whiton Professor of English and Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellow at Cornell University where he has won Cornell's major teaching prizes. He also writes on higher education, including his book In Defense of Reading: Teaching Literature in the Twenty-First Century. He blogs on higher education and the media for Huffington Post. He can be reached at drs6@cornell.edu and followed on twitter at www.twitter.com/
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