11 July 2011

What do professors do?

The question, from the Hon. Mr. (Matthew) Cameron [Yglesias blog understudy]: How can we raise the teaching productivity of the university?

The answer: The quickest route is to sacrifice research.

I think that there's a widespread misunderstanding of what professors actually do and what universities are actually for. Teaching is secondary. This is not true by biomass--the bulk of tertiary education institution are, indeed, devoted by teaching--but in terms of societal value research is the primary goal and justification of the academic enterprise.

Let's unpack the fallacy. Cameron argues a point that a lot of people find intuitively appealing: Universities are soooooo inefficient, because they use large in-person lecture courses to teach! We should just put those online and use the savings to drive down tuition costs to help the Struggling Middle Class and make college more accessible for the Honest Working Classes. (I think all of this is important, so I'm not mocking the SMC and the HWC themselves, but rather pundits'--often Ivy alumni who frankly don't know many authentic SMC and HWC members--invocation of these mythical creatures.)

Consider how Cameron phrases the difficulties:
Universities have little reason to cut costs because their reputations directly benefit from higher per student academic spending. So even if a school achieves cost savings without sacrificing quality – say, by replacing large, intro-level lectures with online courses – it will be regarded as less prestigious by many ranking methodologies. ... inally, university faculty view online technology as a threat to their role at the heart of the higher education system. This was evident during an exchange between George Mason University Prof. Tyler Cowen and Stanford University Prof. Tim Bresnahan at yesterday’s conference. When Cowen raised the possibility of universities employing fewer professors once online courses are widespread, Bresnahan responded defensively by asserting that he does more than just teach.
Cameron then lays out what he sees faculty as doing:
Obviously, Bresnahan has a point – the specialized expertise and personalized guidance that professors can convey to students in higher-level college courses truly is indispensible. For entry-level lectures with hundreds of students, however, faculty members often don’t do much more than teach. They don’t grade papers, they don’t meet their students and they aren’t able to delve into the finer details of the subjects they teach. These classes aren’t just a waste of students’ money, however; they’re also a drain on professors’ time. If they were freed from their obligation to teach such classes, professors would be able to devote more effort toward their niche in the higher education system – stimulating students’ intellectual curiosity through personal interactions and engaging learning experiences.
Here we see the thinking behind the critique of the large lecture course from the point of view of those whose only engagement with academia has been as a student:
  • Professors are primarily teachers;
  • teaching is best carried out in face-to-face interactions;
  • large lecture courses make it hard for professors to have face time with students;
  • ergo, large lecture courses are a waste of time.
There is a corollary argument for replacing these courses with online courses:
  • The Internet is cheap, and allows for on-demand scheduling;
  • Students from the HWCs and SMCs are motivated and disciplined;
  • Online courses suffer from all of the disadvantages of large lecture courses (no face time, no instructor engagement, etc) but at least they are cheaper to provide;
  • Universities will pass on all cost savings from eliminating large lecture courses to students;
  • Universities will be unharmed by losing those tuition dollars;
  • ergo, let's move large lecture courses online.
These arguments collapse at several points because their assumptions are valid. The argument for online courses is staggeringly weak. In the first place, the success of the University of Phoenix belies pundit optimism about distance education. Students in online courses have higher drop-out rates than their in-person equivalents, and universities have no reason to pass on cost savings to students. Indeed, if universities did have a reason to do so, then the adjunctification of higher ed would have been accompanied by plummeting tuition costs. But I am less interested in those reasons than in the wildly naive view about what it is professors do and how that conditions this debate. When my non-grad school friends and my family ask what I plan to do after finishing my doctorate, they invariably ask if I plan to teach. I invariably respond that I would, in fact, very much like to be a professor. But I never use the verb "teach" in describing that position.

I love teaching. I think I am good at it. I work very hard at doing well at it. But given a choice between being a mediocre teacher and a great researcher, or a great teacher and a mediocre researcher, I would take the former every time. Every time. Because if I just wanted to teach, there are many more lucrative and less demanding ways to do so--most of them involving majoring in education as an undergraduate and getting a better-paying job in a nice suburban school system or a good private school. (Yes, the BLS shows that political science "teachers" earn more than secondary school teachers, but that does not account for wages foregone--which can be substantial if you take five or six years to finish your degree--nor the survivor bias for university salaries: all of the washouts have already washed out of that pool, because for university instructors tenure is a privilege, not an entitlement.)

I don't think that the choice is that stark. And I think that, frankly, teaching is not really as hard as it seems. Yes, being the bestest teacher in the whole wide world is very tough, but that is to say that giving Steve Jobs-level presentations is incredibly more demanding than giving a very good presentation. Acquiring a relatively high level of competence seems to be more a matter of discipline and minimal training than of massive investment (certainly less than, say, learning game theory). (Veteran professors are welcome to disabuse me of my naivete.)

Yet that is almost irrelevant. Granted that universities--all of them, even Harvard--need some faculty to work hard at teaching, the real value-added from universities does not come from teaching. It can't, by definition. Both the best and the worst pedagogue in the world alike are limited by how good their subject matter is. There can be no calculus teachers without calculus, no physics teachers without physics, no political science teachers without political science research. Who cares how well we are teaching if what we are teaching is wrong?

And, by definition, only research can be progressive and expand our capabilities and understanding. But the value of humanity's understanding of a subject is bounded by the most perceptive, not the mean. When the British astrophysicist Arthur Eddington was asked how many people understood his theory of the expanding universe, he thought for a moment before replying, "Perhaps seven." Professors are often criticized or mocked because their research is so obscure, but it is precisely that obscurity which often leads to breakthroughs with startlingly practical applications.

This is at the heart of Professor Bresnahan's response to Cowen that he does more than just teach, and it is why Cameron has so badly misunderstood what the professoriate does. It is not a question of "the specialized expertise and personalized guidance that professors can convey to students in higher-level college courses." It is the fact that that expertise did not spring forth fully-formed from Zeus' head. Rather, it was hard-won, mostly by professors who were probably notoriously bad teachers.

And that is why weakening the edifice of the university by forcing its scholars to become pedagogues first and researchers second, if at all, is so frightening. Research will continue, with or without the university. But research outside of academia is proprietary and narrow, and whole disciplines--especially the social sciences--will vanish or become so transformed as to be unrecognizable. (Think of the niche field of "retail anthropology.") Universities exist to provide public goods, and piecemeal "reforms" such as blindly sacrificing large lecture courses and the cross-subsidization they provide both to research and to those much-ballyhooed higher level courses will profoundly alter the production and transmission of knowledge.

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