Sunday, February 17, 2013

Jerry Brown is wrong on research. From the Daily Californian.

Apparently, Gov. Jerry Brown doesn’t understand the critical role of research at the University of California. In an article published last week in The Washington Post, Brown said professors should spend more time in the classroom and less time doing research, claiming that “the faculty’s primary role is teaching.” He then took aim at particular kinds of research, specifically devaluing the necessity of “producing new knowledge.”

Brown’s comment reflects a seriously misguided understanding of California’s higher education system. Most significantly, his remark is couched in a false dichotomy: that research and teaching are somehow mutually exclusive. Under Brown’s view, it would seem, time professors spend conducting research is time they could instead be spending in the classroom.

Also disturbing is Brown’s value judgment about the worth of certain kinds of research. In singling out “academic novelty” as an inferior or less worthwhile endeavor, Brown unfairly pitted different academic fields against each other.



  1. Dear Politician,

    "The faculty's primary role is teaching". There we go again, you're not the first to say it. I have news for you: the people who get PhDs do so not for love of teaching, but moved by the ambition to make nontrivial contributions to their discipline. They're investing long years and taking a significant lifetime pay cut to do so; it's a kind of "calling". Bear in mind that, in most cases, these were the out-of-sight curve-distorting A-nerds in your high school class. Getting back at them, are you?

    So, you want to make their working conditions worse. By having them teach more, say, or more remedial classes (excuse me, "developmental"). By holding their pay down, or by denying the few perks they have, such as sabbaticals or tenure. What do you think will happen?

    Here are some ideas: (i) at a recent meeting I went to, the panel "mathematics in industry" was standing room only, full of postdocs (and a few disillusioned oldsters) eager to make the jump to a setting which is no less challenging, and where their efforts will be visibly (monetarily) appreciated. Do you really want more math nerds developing new financial instruments or automation tools? `Cause we can go there.

    (ii) When you finally make the profession so unattractive people will stop signing up, who is going to educate the next generation of innovators and discoverers? Europe and China already welcome our eager young minds with open arms; are you so sure they'd come back?

    (iii) In the math classes I teach, invariably the weakest students are those who profess an interest in "going into K-12 teaching". It's very sad, and (for me) a powerful argument to abolish Colleges of Education and pedagogical coursework requirements for teacher certification. That's another discussion--but do you see what happens when you deliberately drive the smartest, most ambitious people out of a profession?

  2. I guess he just wants us to make it all up as we go along?

  3. Yeah, all those novelty research projects on how to cure cancer. Who needs 'em?

  4. Yo, Jerry! You repeatedly call for innovation for economic growth, but now you've decided you don't want novelty in your universities. Will you make up your mind, or is senility finally getting the better of you? If you want to curry favor with the public by picking on university professors, remember that Chairman Mao tried that, and it didn't work. Honestly, this sounds like something Meg Whitman would say. Even Ron Reagan had a higher regard for what science can do for your economy than you do!

  5. Jerk. Like course prep itself isn't research. And most of us would not do this without some opportunity to write and converse about new ideas with peers.

    1. "Like course prep itself isn't research."

      Very true. And so, of course, is reading and responding to student work (the local-level research which allows us to respond to our particular student populations and their ever-changing needs -- ever- and quickly-changing in part because politicians keep meddling in the K-12 curriculum). But "evidence-based research" conducted mostly by people who spend little time in the classroom (and who, in some cases, seem to be funded by the educational publishers/edupreneurs, making their research about as trustworthy as that funded by Big Tobacco, or at least Big Pharma) seems to be winning the day, while course and service loads that allow for lively local research cultures are increasingly imperiled. Ugh.

      I also really hate the way such declarations pit teaching against research -- and, by extension and in practical terms, better-paid "research" faculty (who increasingly, from what I hear, don't actually have much time for research once they earn tenure because they're so busy supervising adjuncts and/or grad TAs associated with the ever-larger classes they're expected to teach, and/or doing other service) against generally lower-paid "teaching" faculty (who, despite doing what, according to the politicians, we're supposed to be doing, aren't seeing much tangible indication that anyone values what we do -- certainly not in our paychecks -- and are under similar pressure to teach more and more students, even though we're already cheap in comparison to the "research" faculty).

      I'd really, really, like to see a system in which teaching, research, and service are all truly valued, in which faculty members at the same institution could specialize, and earn tenure primarily on the basis of, any 1 (or perhaps 2) of the three, and could switch among emphases in the course of a career. Instead, I fear we've gotten past the tipping point where the cheapness of contingent teaching labor makes it possible for the administration to put pressure on all faculty members, tenure-track/"research"-oriented or not (at least in departments that don't bring in outside research funding), to teach at least as "efficiently" as the cheapest adjunct -- which means little time for either publishable contributions to the field, or local pedagogical research conducted in the classroom or on committees. The word for all of us seems to be "just crank 'em out, and let somebody else [who, I'm not sure] do the thinking."

      On a brighter note, somebody in CA is doing something right. That's a damn good student newspaper (give or take an it's/its problem in the flash mob story). Kudos to the editors, and to the people who taught them.

  6. That sounds like the place I used to teach at.

    During a meeting I had with the department head and his assistant, the issue of my having a Ph. D. was brought up. I was told that "we only teach here" but that didn't particularly bother me as I worked on my research on my own time. Then I remembered that I wasn't supposed to do that because doing that would be seen as stealing time from my students (yup! even my own time!) and, thereby, denying them success.

    Of course, this happened after I got my degree.

    On the other hand, I remembered that most of my best profs were also active researchers, though not necessarily the other way around.