Daily Archives: April 26, 2011

Research with a purpose

Recently here in Texas, students at the University of Texas at Austin have been protesting Governor Rick Perry’s push to force faculty members to focus more on teaching and less on research. A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher education discusses the ongoing debate between students and Perry’s camp. Students are arguing that forcing faculty members (many of whom are world-class researchers at UT Austin) to focus less on research would devalue their education and worsen their job prospects. However, Perry’s camp argues that professors ought to focus more on teaching in order to serve students better.

Tony McDonald questions the importance of ongoing research in universities because “in many cases, they’re [professors] just compiling data to publish in a journal that few people really read.” In some ways, I agree with Tony. Often, professors and academics (myself included) get so focused on publishing and answering their own questions of intrigue that we forget to take a step back and ask, “How is this applicable to the real world?” Research should be fueled by the need to solve real-world problems, and sometimes the focus gets off.

I was surprised, however, that so many students were vying for keeping rigorous research programs on the table rather than focusing more on teaching. I wonder if this push exists merely because students know that top-of-the-line researchers are often required for top tier universities, thus their dependence on it. Or, are these students actually receiving real-world benefits from research? I do not know the answer to that question, but I do know how students could start directly benefiting from university research.

Simply put, more students need to be involved in the research process. Often, students are coddled and given too simple of assignments for classes. For instance, students are continuously told to write literature reviews in psychology but rarely conduct their own research. Or, they might do simple labs each week instead of collecting a semester’s worth of data and then writing it up as a brief journal article. I think if professors would invite more students into ongoing research, several benefits would occur: 1) students would get hands-on experience doing actual research, 2) professors could collect more data (more hands!), and 3) hopefully professors who are forced to turn their own research into a learning exercise would  think more about the practical implications of their research.

Either way, I think that research and teaching should stop being competing forces and instead should be synthesized. If teaching fuels research and research fuels teaching, there might just be a whole lot more time, knowledge, and energy to go around among faculty members.