Improving Higher Education Through Professor Specialization

Every economist will tell you about the benefits from specialization. We have known about that since Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations. But for some reason, this knowledge is thrown out when it comes to specialization in academia. 

I am talking about the requirement for tenure-track professors to engage in research. 

There is little evidence that good teachers are good researchers, or vice versa. Nor should we expect there to be any necessary connection between the two. And yet, we hear such claims all the time. 

The fact of the matter is that each—being a good researcher and being a good teacher—requires a completely different skill set. And each has different goals. This is something we understand for high school teachers—we don’t require them to do research—but not for undergraduate professors. 

Researchers are interested in the discovery of new knowledge. Teachers are interested in the communication of what is known and well-established. Researchers need to spend a lot of time working alone or in small research teams—but even in the latter case, the work tends to be solitary in nature, while you’re doing it. Teachers need to be social and gregarious. 

And while the ability to communicate is important for researchers, it is central to the task of teaching. 

In many ways, then, teaching and doing research require opposite skills and each is most attractive to people with almost opposing personalities. Good teachers are extroverts; good researchers tend to be introverts. 

In the rest of the economy, we expect specialization. Why do we expect professors to do multiple jobs and to be good at them all? 

Some argue that doing research helps a professor keep up with recent developments. I would argue to the contrary; if anything, it blocks you off from the truly important developments. Since most academic research is very narrow, your readings in the field will be in the very narrow subfield in which you are working. 

Thus, you are not keeping up with the field at all, but keeping up with your narrow subfield. Doing so can help pad your c.v., but it does little or nothing to improve your undergraduate classes. 

I experienced this plenty of times as an undergraduate recombinant gene technology major at Western Kentucky University. I had more than one professor who could tell you everything about the exact species or protein he was studying, but was largely ignorant of everything else in molecular biology. I remember having a cell biology professor who mostly just read from the textbook in class, and was almost incapable of answering questions from the students.  She could and did, however, talk at length about flagellum of the particular species of euglena she was researching. No doubt that was important, but not for the course. 

While there were also very good professors who kept up with broader trends, I saw no necessary connection between teaching ability and research skills. Often, there was an inverse correlation. 

For those who still favor keeping researchers in the universities, however, Michael Bérubé and Jennifer Ruth propose in their new book The Humanities, Higher Education and Academic Freedom: Three Necessary Arguments that the universities have a teaching track and a tenured research track to accommodate both elements. Indeed, this would work well if the former were primarily focused on undergraduate education and the latter were reserved for graduate education, thus keeping both elements together in our universities. 

Oddly, this retreat from specialization is in many ways a recent phenomenon, paralleling the rise of capitalism. Cardinal John Henry Newman pointed out in The Idea of a University that there used to be a “division of intellectual labor between Academies and Universities” between university teaching and being a scientist. He said that this made sense because:

To discover and to teach are distinct functions; they are also distinct gifts, and are not commonly found united in the same person. He, too, who spends his day in dispensing his existing knowledge to all comers is unlikely to have either leisure or energy to acquire new. The common sense of mankind has associated the search after truth with seclusion and quiet. The greatest thinkers have been too intent on their subject to admit of interruption; they have been men of absent minds and idiosyncratic habits, and have, more or less, shunned the lecture room and the public school. 

More than that, “while teaching involves external engagements, the natural home for experiment and speculation is retirement.”  

Newman thus suggests that we should not only not have our natural scientists doing experiments in our undergraduate institutions, but our social scientists and humanities professors should not be speculating in them, either. Nor should our artists be creating in them. 

The requirement that professors also be researchers not only results in less-than-great teachers being hired, but also an overproduction of research. The demand for research to get hired into a tenure-track position and to get tenure results in professors publishing merely to publish. Quantity is more important than quality.  

Quite a bit of research is done simply because someone had to get in a certain number of publications. Consider these published papers:

  • Optimising the sensory characteristics and acceptance of canned cat food: use of a human taste panel. (Journal of Animal Physiology and Animal Nutrition) 
  • Effects of cocaine on honeybee dance behaviour. (Journal of Experimental Biology) 
  • Ingested foreign bodies and societal wealth: three year observational study of swallowed coins. (British Medical Journal) 
  • Jay-Z’S 99 Problems, Verse 2: A Close Reading with Fourth Amendment Guidance for Cops and Perps. (St. Louis University Law Journal) 

Many more examples can be found on the Improbable Research site, which each year awards “Ig Nobel Prizes” for laughable scholarship. 

It’s doubtful that we would lose out on useful research if we effected a separation between teaching and research. As Cardinal Newman observed, “The great discoveries in chemistry and electricity were not made in Universities.” That was true in 19th century England and in 21st century America, one of the most productive places for research is a modern-day Academy: the Santa Fe Institute. Their “About” page says it all:

The Santa Fe Institute is a private, not-for-profit, independent research and education center, founded in 1984, where leading scientists grapple with some of the most compelling and complex problems of our time.

Researchers come to the Santa Fe Institute from universities, government agencies, research institutes, and private industry to collaborate across disciplines, merging ideas and principles of many fields — from physics, mathematics, and biology to the social sciences and the humanities — in pursuit of creative insights that improve our world.

The Institute’s scientific and educational missions are supported by philanthropic individuals and foundations, forward-thinking partner companies, and government science agencies. 

This is a model institution for research. Of course, we also have a great deal of research going on in our businesses and in government labs. For those concerned about contamination from such sources, I would note that they still have to undergo peer review, and their conclusions are always open for testing by others.  

The country would be better off if businesses and philanthropists created more Academies where people are hired just to do research. They would complement our research universities, which should be almost exclusively dedicated to research and to teaching graduate students who want to go into research.  

We need institutions of undergraduate education where professors are only expected to teach and which will succeed based on the quality of the teachers they hire. We need institutions of graduate education to produce the professors for the undergraduate institutions. We need institutions of graduate education where professors do a combination of teaching and research to produce more researchers through the tradition of apprenticeship.  

This would free researchers to do research and professors to teach. Both would be done at a higher skill level and more efficiently and effectively.