Research Revisited: The Rage of Caliban


Ian Johnston   

 

(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]  

______

People 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)

 

Prologue

 

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.

 

Allied 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.

 

Such 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).

 

The Retort Diversionary

 

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?).

 

Such 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).

 

None 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.

 

The Quip Snide

 

And, 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..

 

A 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:

 

After 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)

 

What 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 the point).

 

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.

 

The Countercheck Machiavellian

 

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.”

 

That, 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.

 

That 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..

 

The 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.

 

Of 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.

 

That’s 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.

 

As 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).

 

The 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.