Research and scholarship
Interesting conversation today with some academic colleagues. We were discussing the paradox that while it is an article of faith among academics that excellence in research is necessary if a university is to be excellent in teaching, the statistical evidence for this is thin (to put it mildly). So is this just an academic shibboleth (“a manner of speaking that is distinctive of a particular group of people” – www.cogsci.princeton.edu/cgi-bin/webwn)?
In thinking about it, it seemed to me that Thomas Kuhn’s concept of a ‘paradigm’ might be useful. A paradigm, in TK’s sense, is an agreed theoretical framework which characterises a mature academic discipline. Research (‘normal science’ in TK’s terms) takes place on the edges of the paradigm and consists of exploring anomalies between the paradigm and the real world. Teaching, in contrast, consists of articulating the paradigm in such a way that new generations of students can understand and absorb it.
Teaching and research require quite different abilities and skills. Many people who are good at research are poor at articulating the paradigm. (Of course there are some spectacular refutations of this — Richard Feynman is the one who comes immediately to mind, but I believe it to be a reasonable generalisation.) Conversely, many people who are excellent teachers are poor at ‘research’ of the peer-reviewed, pushing-back-the-frontiers kind.
So what is necessary for good teaching, if not research? The answer, I conjecture, might be scholarship, which I define as study which has the effect of deepening one’s understanding of a paradigm. To be a good teacher, one needs (i) a broad and deep understanding of one’s subject (the product of scholarship), together with (ii) sophisticated skills at imparting knowledge, (iii) empathy with learners (something talented researchers often lack) and (iv) the ability and inclination for self-reflection. My conclusion: to have excellent teaching it is more important for an institution to have scholarship than ‘research’. My question: what’s wrong with this conjecture?