Teaching amid the research obsession

September 22, 2010 at 5:50 pm 2 comments

Thanks to Janet Kolodner for sending this to me.  I’m including two quotes from the letter to Physics Today.  The first is the opening salvo, and the second points out that this “research obsession” is far broader than just physics and includes the humanities (and computer science?) as well.

In his review of Joseph Hermanowicz’s book Lives in Science: How Institutions Affect Academic Careers (University of Chicago, 2009), Robert Hilborn remarks, “The most important lesson [of the book] is that the science community’s obsession with research as the sole reason for recognition and reward leads to frustration and dissatisfaction when reality fails to match expectations. And that, as the sociologists would put it, ‘leads to anomie’ ” (PHYSICS TODAY, January 2010, page 48). Although that statement essentially describes my career in physics, I still find it shocking. How can brilliant people be so stupid?

The research obsession is both self-reinforcing and self-destructive. The eroding state of science and science education in the US today is at least partly due to that misguided and harmful attitude in our universities. It has disfigured the humanities into useless imitations of some kind of quantitative science and has made the exact sciences a shadow of what they ought to be as part of liberal education and knowledge. It’s tragic that at a time when science should be setting the standard for truth and understanding, science academics and administrators are too preoccupied with their own self-advancement to play the valuable and important leadership role.

via Teaching amid the research obsession- Physics Today July 2010.

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Mike Byrne  |  September 25, 2010 at 12:36 am

    I don’t find this to be particularly surprising or insightful.

    People don’t respond perfectly to all incentives (as most economists would have you believe) but they certainly do respond to them, and look at how P&T works at most research universities. Teaching is basically irrelevant in these processes. If you’re really truly fantastic in the classroom, it can help you a little, but that’s about it. And if you’re really awful in the classroom, that gives the P&T committee another reason to try to sink you. The lesson is clearly (and I’ve heard senior faculty give exactly this advice to junior faculty): “spend just enough time on your teaching to be average, or even slightly below average.” Hey, there’s a goal for you!

    On the other hand, you can’t entirely blame the incentive structure. It’s simply much more difficult to assess research productivity than it is to assess teaching. It’s not that hard to just count publications, citations, and grant dollars. But meaningfully assessing teaching is, as you well know, Mark, not exactly trivial. We know that course evaluations contain a LOT of noise and are hugely affected by things that really don’t have a lot to do with actually generating learning in students (e.g., expected grades, physical attractiveness, subject matter, etc.), yet we still use them anyway. You can do all kinds of other assessments, but there are barriers to doing most of those well (like $ cost) that university administrators simply won’t bear.

    This is not an easy thing to change, and it’s not really clear what exactly the incentive is for universities to change it anyway.

    I’m also not sure I buy a lot of the claims in the second paragraph you posted anyway. “Useless imitations of some kind of quantitative science”? Hunh? I don’t see this, as I don’t get an even vague sense that the humanities are trying in any way, shape or form to imitate quantitative science. If anything, they seem to be actively trying to undermine quantitative science. (See the Gross and Levitt book “Higher Superstition,” which still seems relevant today.)

  • […] fascinating take on the role of science in universities.  I’ve blogged previously here about the obsession with research (mostly in science) in Universities and how that twists budgets and perceptions.  This article points out that, while Universities […]


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