Research Revisited: The Rage of Caliban
(Malaspina University College
now Vancouver Island University)
[This text, first published in August 2000, is in the public domain and may be used by anyone for any purpose without permission and without charge, provided the source is acknowledged]
of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but
the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some
contrivance to raise prices. (Adam Smith)
About ten years ago, in the midst of our frantic
scrambling to develop an upper-division curriculum, I delivered a talk to the
faculty at Malaspina (as it then was) College on the
relationship between conventional research and publishing in the university and
the quality of undergraduate teaching. The emphatic central point of the talk
was that, although there were many vigorous claims about the existence of a
fruitful and beneficial relationship between such routine scholarly activity and teaching, no one had ever successfully
demonstrated that such claims were true. In fact, a number of studies seemed to
confirm that no such relationship could be established.
That paper was circulated among the faculty here and elsewhere and a copy placed in the Malaspina library, where it has been routinely mutilated ever since. A version of it also appeared in the Canadian Journal of Higher Education (now evidently--and significantly--defunct) in 1990. And on a number of occasions I reminded people in print of the conclusions presented in that argument. For those who are unfamiliar with the paper or who would like to scan it again, I have prepared a slightly edited cyber version which the reader can access immediately by clicking on the following link: Myth Conceptions of Academic Work Once More.
All this by way of a lead-in to a short account
of what (for me) has been particularly fascinating ever since, the various
responses of many faculty members to a direct assault on the most cherished
myth of their profession and obviously for some a keystone of their sense of
themselves as valued professionals. If we like to think of the academic world
as a place where rational argument holds some currency, the results I have
witnessed cannot be called reassuring.
The Comment Querulous
The first immediate reply to the speech in which I
presented the results of my enquiries came at the very start of the question period. It was
a curt remark from someone who throughout the presentation had sat quietly with
an expression of growing anguish: “I feel violated,” she said. Well, she was a
recent PhD in English, so I assumed she knew what she meant by that expression
and its attendant connotations. Somewhat taken aback, I let her observation
pass and sought out another question.
That initial response and others like it,
interestingly enough, have been for ten years (at least) very symptomatic of a
growing tendency for some faculty, especially in the Humanities, to counter
arguments they do not like to think about with statements of injured feelings,
a rhetorical ploy engendered by a disastrous liaison between postmodern
chop-logic and Me-generation sensibilities, a union which raises a bruised ego
to the logical status of a contradiction, tears for fears.
The Riposte Pugnacious
The second response at that initial meeting was
equally curt but more assertive. “I don’t believe it,” said the next PhD
sitting in the front row. When I pointed out that much of the research came
from academics in her very own discipline, tenured professors at reputable
universities, her reply was equally sensitive, “I
still don’t believe it.”
In the months that followed I was to grow very
familiar with this retort (at Malaspina and
elsewhere), the reflex defense of someone who just
does not wish to consider the argument, so rigidly entrenched is the faith
handed down to us from our academic ancestors. Research is essential to being a
well informed effective instructor, except apparently research which indicates
that that claim is not true. Hmmm.
to this fighting stance was an initial desire on the part of some faculty to
set up a debate, a professional development opportunity, where people might, by
repetitive assertions of disbelief, adjudicate whether or not what I was saying
had any merit. I welcomed the chance to present my paper again, but I pointed
out that a debate was rather pointless because my case was based on a very
simple factual claim: There was no reliable evidence to support the idea that
conventional research and publication had any positive effects on teaching. If
someone had such evidence, then the debate was over; if no one possessed such
evidence, then there was nothing to debate. So the idea of a faculty chat
evaporated. Parading one’s unwillingness to believe is one thing; being asked
to provide some factual basis for that stance is evidently quite another.
blithely willed ignorance is by no means unique to Malaspina.
In the campaign to promote conventional scholarly research activity, outsiders
occasionally joined in. So, for example, Dr. Patricia Roy of the History
Department at the University of Victoria wrote a letter to Rich Johnston,
President of Malaspina, urging him (on behalf of the
history teachers in the BC college system) to throw his support behind
conventional research on the ground that it was indissolubly linked with good
teaching. Knowing that academic historians are famous (or notorious) for their
rigorous insistence on detailed documentation for every claim (and fiercely
hostile to their often more popular colleagues, like Peter Newman, Pierre
Burton, and Barbara Tuchman, who fail properly to document their sources), I
wrote to Dr. Roy politely requesting the sources to back up her confident
assertions. My letter remains to this day unanswered (no surprise there).
One group of faculty
at Malaspina was (and continues to be) particularly
energized to attack the claims I had made, members of the science departments. They
have, they assert in chorus, direct evidence that what I was stating was
hogwash. After all, in the BSc program students have to have research projects
(set up and supervised by faculty) in which they can participate as part of their
upper-division curriculum. Such research projects are an essential part of
their education and are immensely useful for all sorts of reasons. Some
students dutifully engaged me in the pages of the local press with appropriate
indignation (perhaps at the prompting of their supervisors?).
an position is, of course, a gigantic red herring, spawned in those misty
polluted creeks where arguments get obfuscated by fiddling around with the key
term (the famous text book example of such a fallacy is the following: Nothing
is better than a good lesson; a bad lesson is better than nothing; therefore, a
bad lesson is better than a good lesson).
of my case rests on the value of student projects or of research activities set
up as an essential part of the student’s curriculum. That should have been
quite evident to anyone who read what I was saying with half attention. Such
projects, like the similar activities involved in theatre productions,
woodlots, athletic teams, jazz combos, and field trips of all sorts, are
designed to assist student learning, not to improve the instructor’s
pedagogical quality. As part of the curriculum, they fall naturally under the
rubric of workload, so that if an instructor needs additional time to set up and supervise these properly, that needs to be taken
care of as a workload issue, not in some fanciful appeal to an old lie.
of course, there has been no shortage of ad hominem attacks, “Well, what
do you expect? He doesn’t have a PhD,” “He’s just someone who
cannot cut it in conventional academic circles,” “Hell, he comes from Malaspina.” And so on.
So I’ve grown accustomed to hearing that any attack on the academic establishment’s ways of doing business is just a sign of anti-intellectualism or some character flaw, as if any challenge to the claim about research fostering good teaching is, ipso facto, an attack on the value of all scholarly activity itself. But I have no trouble defending the importance of research and scholarly activity. Offhand I can think of two or three very interesting arguments in support of these activities (the most important being that they are immensely enjoyable and often useful). I’m just not prepared to advocate we spend even more instructional money on them for reasons which appear at least unfounded and at worst quite spurious, especially in an institution which has a chronic shortage of money for instruction and no university-style mandate to carry out research..
really egregious example of the rhetorical doublespeak of the Quip Snide occurs
in Peter C. Emberley’s book Zero Tolerance: Hot
Button Politics in Canada’s Universities:
citing one Carnegie Foundation study after another from America supporting the
argument for the conflictual relation between
teaching and research, the OCUA report finally offers “a Canadian perspective”
from an instructor at Malaspina College in Nanaimo,
British Columbia. He “argues in terms of the deleterious effect of research
and publication on instruction” It is unfortunate the Malaspina
College instructor could not present his findings in person to scholars like
Northrop Frye, George Grant and Charles Taylor, whose prodigious publication
records and star teaching belie this self-serving cant. (83)
makes this logically absurd example so edifying is that it comes in the middle
of a chapter in which, among other things, Emberley
is trying to clarify for us the difference between good and bad scholarship, in
a book which manifests a fairly aggressive reformist swagger. But even under
such conditions, the author is so convinced of some fruitful connection between
the right kind of scholarship and good teaching that he eagerly castigates
someone with an awkward set of facts by misrepresenting the argument, without
bothering to read the text he is denigrating or even naming the person at whom
he is pointing his accusatory finger. If the holy triumvirate he names had to
judge on the basis of self-serving cant, I have a much better candidate than
the Malaspina College instructor referred to.
Emberley may be
apparently sympathetic to some stringent reforms of Canada’s universities, but
it is unfortunate (and really significant) that the Carleton University
professor is not willing to provide something more persuasive than his Pavlovian reflex adherence to his profession’s central myth
in defense of statements like the following (with which his text is generously
larded): “Teaching without active engagement in the scholarly culture
degenerates into mere information transmission or empty utterance of
platitudes.” Such assertions, without the active engagement of some basic
rules of evidence, degenerate into repetitive reformulations of a
self-interested mantra or Ohrwurm, on the principle, I suppose, that if a university professor says
something often enough, then it must be true. And so long as the energetic
critic genuflects in front of the single most important professional article of
faith, the analysis of the profession, no matter how apparently critical, is
without any significant edge and can be accepted without risk (perhaps that is
Then again, the
rhetorical excess here (and in similar varieties of this response) may be
symptomatic of a mind very uneasy (unconsciously perhaps) of the emptiness of
the claim upon which so much of the life of the university professor
rests. Caliban, they say, became enraged at the
sight of his own face in the mirror. He dealt with the problem by smashing
the mirror. Zero tolerance, indeed.
During a nicotine
refill break under the awnings, at one point I lamented the absence of anything
remotely resembling reason in the responses to what I was presenting. “Don’t
worry about that,” an experienced member of the faculty reassured me. “Of
course, the faculty claim is logically erroneous, but, hey, it’s a stick which
enables us to beat the administration over the head so as to reduce work loads.”
of course, is the key point. As a political ploy, harnessing the myth about the
importance of research to effective teaching is really useful, since faculty
can appeal to the professional consensus and, by throwing around phrases like
“credibility” and “AUCC accreditation,” wring
concessions from the administration, so that hundreds of thousands of dollars
of instructional money are annually transferred from student needs to faculty
desires. It may be hypocritical, but we all surely understand that in any
workload debate the end always justifies the means.
seems to have worked quite well, at least initially. So now (at considerable
expense to students) we have a system of release time in place for
upper-division courses. The trouble is we are now (perhaps) about to be hoisted
by our own petard. For the administration seems to be on the verge of demanding
that we live up to our own protestations of the essential need for scholarly
research and publication in order to be effective teachers. Having allocated
the money at our energetic request, the administration may now be about to ask
that we actually produce some evidence that we are spending that time in the
way we originally required, that we are all really carrying out research..
faculty union (MFA) is understandably very concerned about this. It’s one thing to ask for money for release time to conduct
research on the ground that such an activity is essential to quality
instruction in the upper-division. It’s quite another to expect those making
such a confident case to live up to what they earlier professed, once the
release time is actually granted.
course, the administration has to be cautious in its demands, too. For if some
imperial fiat came down that, before being permitted to offer a particular
upper-division course, anyone proposing to teach it had to produce
evidence of recent conventional scholarly activity directly related to that
course, we would probably have to close down many of our upper-division
offerings or else seek temporary staffing from beyond Mount Benson.
actually quite a clever Catch-22 situation, when you think about it. We have to
have release time to do the scholarly activity which qualifies us to teach
upper-division courses. But we don’t actually have to do the activity for which
we are getting paid, and any effective demand that we do is unlikely to have
any real teeth because that would create curricular havoc. Besides, we can
always appeal to the fact that the allowance we do get is such a pittance, how
can anyone carry out any significant work.
We Like It
What’s important to remember in all this is that the argument is not just one (more) academic debate wafting around the ivory towers (although it is that). The erroneous claim at the heart of faculty culture is the single most significant reason for the endemic financial plight of our post-secondary institutions (and for all the various problems, from class size to higher fees and the oppression of teaching assistants, which arise out of that).
really ironic thing in all this comes from the realization that the most
important job almost all faculty share as teachers of
undergraduates concerns education in analyzing and constructing good arguments.
We expend a great deal of pedagogical energy trying to get students to recognize
all sorts of basic logical mistakes, to learn about what counts as a reasonable
presentation of a case based on good and sufficient evidence and reliable
principles and what does not, and to foster an attitude of skepticism about
various claims which are not rationally grounded. The subject matter may vary,
but the challenge of instructing students in reasoning remains fairly constant
across the curriculum in all years of the undergraduate program.
So it’s interesting (to say the least) to see how often some of us, in defense of what we want to believe about our profession (and especially about our work load), resort to exactly the same reasoning which persuades many of our students that Creationist Science is a valid alternative to neo-Darwinism in Biology classes or that psychic phenomena are as real as anything else or that something is true if anyone believes it or that the Holocaust did not take place, after all.