Thursday, June 16, 2005

Faculty Research as a Complement to Undergraduate Teaching

When I first started at Illinois, the Carter presidency was winding down and the Reagan ascendancy had not yet started. In those days and in spite of the powerful voice of Milton Friedman and the Chicago school, Higher Education was viewed as a public good, to be financed largely via subsidy from the state. Many of the faculty who came of age then operated under a certain set of assumptions. Much of that is being challenged now, but I’d like to review those assumptions first because I think many of my colleagues still hold them dear and second because it is a useful basis on which to consider the cost issues I’ve talked about the last few days.

From the brand new assistant professor point of view, I came to Illinois primarily to do Econ research. It was a way of life, not just a job. I was in the office most Saturday and Sunday mornings trying to prove results or write them up. While I had a course buyout my first semester to help get me started, the normal teaching load was two courses per semester, with the expectation that on average one would be a grad class and one would be an undergrad class. That first semester I taught intermediate microeconomics, was absolutely horrible at it and got bombed on my course evaluations. I knew the subject at the graduate level really well, but didn’t know how to teach these students. The next semester I was grateful when I got to teach graduate math econ and undergraduate math econ. I felt comfortable in those settings and did better.

This was the pattern the next year as well (but I had two sections of intermediate micro in the fall.) Those sections were in the 60 student range. The other courses had perhaps 10 or 15 per, and one was a grad class. A year or two later, I stopped teaching the intermediate micro in favor of teaching in the graduate core micro courses.

The most striking memory I have of all of that was the call for rigor. Concepts needed precise definitions and arguments had to be made as if doing a mathematical proof. A good teacher, or so I thought, presented ideas in a clear way, was well prepared to make the arguments, and could give deep answers to serious questions.

I had a much narrower view of the Campus then. Mostly it revolved around the Econ department and apart from my own research and teaching the seminars were extremely important. This is where ideas were exchanged and commented on, where we had outside speakers and grad students presenting their formative work. It was the center of the culture.

There were other departments with Econ in the title, Ag Econ and Family and Consumer Economics (they have since merged). There was some Econ in the Geography department on Urban and Regional Issues, some in Engineering on Transportation Economics and Energy Economics, and a bunch of Environmental guys were doing an “Energy theory of Value” which in its modeling was Samuelson doing Marx (Karl, not Groucho). So there was no doubt that core ideas were applicable in multiple domains and the key was to get a deep understanding of the core ideas. The rigor in the teaching was tied to the idea of deep understanding. Students were expected to “think hard” to get that deep understanding. This is a graduate student idea, but we applied it to undergrads too.

A major goal of undergrad instruction at the time was to generate students who would attend good doctoral programs in Economics. The undergrad math econ course was targeted at this population of students. For a while there was also a majors or honors version of intermediate micro meant to be taught with more rigor. I taught that a couple of times, using a text by Binger and Hoffman. (Hoffman is now the ex-President of the University of Colorado. She was an assistant prof at NU while I was a grad student there.) At least for this population of students, they were receiving a distilled version of ideas I had been exposed to in grad school and though my direct research was not applicable to the course, the more general research environment I operated in definitely was.

But what about the broader population of students? Where is the tie in between my research and my teaching? And what about considering this question more broadly> Let’s not focus just on Lanny and his undergraduate teaching, let’s consider all the undergrad teaching being done here. Are there positive spillovers as perceived by the students from having a research faculty member as an instructor? If so, what are they?

For the best and the brightest the answer is an obvious yes. Courses serve as gateways. Students meet instructors and vice versa. Sometimes the conversation continues beyond the course and sometimes it leads to a work relationship, in a lab or on a research project. Now the student has rocketed from classroom learning to being part of new knowledge production in an environment that is hard if not impossible to replicate at non research universities. This is wunderbar for the student and of course it is good for the research team too to have young progeny who then go off and do great works elsewhere.

Do we know who the best and the brightest are going to be when the students are admitted to the University? To the extent we don’t, that the students self-identify after they’ve been here through some combination of self-actualization and cross student competition, the entire structure can be rationalized that way. But to the extent that game is loaded heavily in favor of a select few, there needs to be a broader benefit from the research.

I know some of my colleagues feel there is. Students come to Illinois to learn economics from Lanny Arvan. (That is not really true, but better to embarrass myself in making the point than to place that burden on a colleague.) That means the learning must be unique to some degree even if the subject matter (and course titles) are generic. There is the Lanny Arvan style to teaching intermediate micro, the particular points of emphasis, the entire approach. That is wrapped up in the faculty member as researcher (and is not in the text book which to a large extent is generic.)

Might a non-researcher produce a unique style that has sufficient flavor and interest as to attract students beyond what the course title alone would attract? In the mindset of the colleagues I’ve mentioned, I think the answer to that is no. How could such a person establish a credential? The only way is through their writing, their research.

As I said, these views may now seem archaic, an anachronism suitable for another age but not appropriate now. We are seemingly commodify-ing education particularly in the first two years of the college experience where the focus is on general education, and the move to learner centric approaches may be much more democratic in the way the benefits of education are distributed but it may come at the expense of rigor. Today’s column in the Times by David Brooks makes a similar argument with regard to mass culture as exemplified by Time and Newsweek.

Is there a role for the research faculty member in undergraduate instruction in the new world? Surely for courses where the knowledge itself is fairly new the answer must be yes (there aren’t others to teach the course). But what about those courses where the knowledge is not so new, but the ideas are important for the students to learn. Is the researcher important in that context? That is a tough one.

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