Research isn’t part of Professor Pushbutton’s job description.

10 12 2012

“Universities are also generators of new knowledge, a fact that is entirely overlooked by the desire to automate teaching and turn it over to Professor Pushbutton.”

Historiann, December 6, 2012.

Today is when grades are due here at CSU-Pueblo. Normally, I would have had them done days ago, but since I’ve been on sabbatical this semester I’ve had no grading to do at all. Therefore, today marks the official end of my period of personal privilege. I far exceeded the necessary chapter of the new project I promised my employer in order to get the time off. In fact, after I publish this post, I’ll be turning in the manuscript for my previous project (via Dropbox, which I think is pretty cool).* That’s the history of the American ice and refrigeration industries which I described in this space when I first got that contract.

Why should the taxpayers of Colorado fund this sort of thing? The answer to that question is surprisingly simple: Because it makes me a better teacher. For one thing, I teach both the undergraduate and graduate history research seminars at this university. If I didn’t have time to conduct research I’d be pretty bad at teaching it, don’t you think? Equally importantly, I teach the same subjects that I study. The whole refrigeration book has helped move me towards the subfield of food history, which I want to start teaching next fall in part because it will hopefully bring in students by the boatloads (assuming my reputation as a cranky vegetarian doesn’t scare them all off). I even wrote a book based on what I’ve learned in ten+ years of teaching the second half of the U.S. Survey. I’ll start using it in January to help my students learn that material better.

Anybody who’s been reading anywhere near as much press about MOOCs as I have these days has seen a variation on this line by Coursera’s Daphne Koller:

With an online course, students get the benefit of having constant interaction with the material, as well as learning at their own pace; in-class time is then freed up to give students more opportunities for interaction with their instructor.

The not-so-subtle implication of this argument is that faculty aren’t spending enough time teaching in the classroom already. The thing is – and this is what non-professors, especially faculty-bashing politicians, never understand – what we do outside the classroom informs everything we do inside the classroom. When content creation is farmed out entirely to superprofessors there’ll be no need for us to go anywhere to gather knowledge because we won’t need that knowledge in order to do our vastly downscaled jobs. As Tenured Radical explained last week:

In fact, if you look closely, practically everything that is wrong with academia is the fault of the faculty. It is as if no economic contractions have occurred over the past four decades.

Research is, of course, one of the problems associated with the position she’s mocking here, not one of the solutions. But without research to inform our teaching we become expensive teaching assistants, and teaching assistants don’t get sabbaticals.

* Actually, I would have the whole thing turned in today, but the Baker Library at Harvard has missed their own deadline to get me my last illustration so the whole thing won’t actually be submitted until I get that picture. Today is for formatting files and printing out the paper copy for eventual mailing, but I figured that’s close enough for horseshoes and hand grenades




One response

10 12 2012

Congratulations for finishing your book! And thanks for the link.

It strikes me that historians are victims of our incredible success in the past generation. The contraction in tenure-track jobs has meant that pretty much anyone anywhere who lands a TT job is pretty darn good at everything. Places like directional unis now hire assistant proffies who have books out before tenure. The profession is more engaged in research than it ever was, and we’re rapidly professionalizing the practice of public history to boot. And this is the thanks we get: research is seen as a competitor with rather than instrumental to our teaching, and in any case is too expensive when they could hire two adjunct lecturers for the price of me.

Maybe we should all have just rolled over after tenure and gone to sleep.

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