Teaching Comes First. But Only If You Bring In Grants. And Publish


Since it’s teaching time, via Nick B Steves via Bruce Charlton comes this reminiscence of Oxford in the 1970s.

In the 70s it was still possible for a distinguished head of a science department and Fellow of the Royal Society to say, proudly, that he had never received an outside grant for his research. His research group varied from 2-3; his equipment requirements had changed only gradually and were met by the departmental workshops; his life-long technician was paid by the University Chest…

[Now,] [e]ven where your research entails trivial costs (e.g. in theoretical sciences, or working in the Bodleian to prepare a magnum opus) you are judged by your ability to bring in outside grants, and the more people you can employ on your grant the greater the kudos.

I was interviewing at an “elite” liberal arts school. Kind which boasts, and boasts loudly, how students come first. Teaching means something here, not like at those Big Places. Yes, sir. Students, students, students.

At lunch with the department, one gentleman pounced. “I understand, Matt, that you don’t want to do research.” He had found my website.

“That’s not right. I want to write these books I’m working on. I don’t want to write grants. I want to teach.”

I was told that without grants one could not expect summer salary. To which, I said, I was indifferent. Without grants I could not have a research fund. To which, I said, I did not need. The university (it used to be a college) had a library and inter-library loan, did it not? Beyond those, peace and quiet and time and sharp pencils were all I needed. I would provide my own pencils. Ha ha.

If I wanted to have travel money, I would need the skim from grants. To which I said I had no interest in going to meetings. I don’t like flying and, besides, the books will take me a few years to write. Besides, without having them finished, I would have nothing to report. Anyway, what’s the rush? Don’t students come first?

Grants and research activity count a lot towards promotion, they said. To which, I said, promotions are nice, but how much does teaching count? Teaching counts, they said. But so do grants. And papers. There’s no “set number”, of course. That would be crude. But it had better be at least one a year, if not more. “We want the department to look good.”

To which, I said, there were too many papers for anybody to read. Books, especially on foundational and rare topics like the philosophy of probability and statistics, are superior ways to communicate.

“Biostatistics is a hot field. Lot of money there. Your CV shows you did a lot of work in it.” His eyes told me, “Who does philosophy of probability and statistics? We already know everything we need to know about that.”

To which I said, “Biostats is fine. I just don’t have a primary interest in it. And I’m not that keen about writing grants anyway, like I said. I’d rather teach and work on these books. That’s why I applied here. A place where teaching comes first.”

I didn’t get the job.

What you taught and how you taught it was traditionally a matter for the individual don to decide. Oxford history is rich in tales of inspiring, as well as eccentric, tutors. Particularly in the humanities lecturers could decide on the topic for their next lecture series, on the basis perhaps of the burning intellectual issue of the day or because it might help write their next book. Now syllabuses are laid down by faculty boards and lecturers assigned to cover the ground.

Academic “freedom” now means teach these courses with these pre-defined syllabi with these textbooks and cover these topics in this order.

Eccentricity is not tolerated. Advice to young statisticians: do not let it be known that you do not want to teach frequentist methods. This is considered eccentric.

Thirty years ago secretaries would type your letters, papers,…Now academics…do all the typing themselves and indeed most of the publishing work preparatory to printing of the paper or book. Now hours are taken out of every day in dealing with the e-mails and texts — communication routes that make us so easily accessible to so many demands — a few of which we simply cannot afford to ignore or put on hold.

Academics spend days making documents pretty instead of concentrating on the words. The utter tyranny of MS Word! Academics do all the work for publishers, and except for books, even sign over their copyrights. Slick system.


  1. rms

    re “Academics spend days making documents pretty instead of concentrating on the words. The utter tyranny of MS Word!”. See this all the time. And when I point out how one can use MS Word templates/styles (see big buttons on toolbar) to eliminate that tyranny, I get blank stares–even from those with PhD’s or working on PhD’s–as this is not within their experience, too hard to learn, and therefore to be avoided. Sigh. It’s not all Word’s fault.

  2. Gary

    Budget is primary, for without it, the whole operation fails. And teaching comes behind “scholarship.” The process of becoming a faculty member selects for certain characteristics — inquisitiveness, contentiousness, competitiveness, self-interest, etc. — that are more intense in faculty than the general population. Individuals without high scores in these areas fall by the wayside into other, less scholarly professions. Teaching rarely satisfies these motivators because undergraduate students with rare exceptions are boring, passive, lazy, and interested in things other than the professor’s passion. Since the institutions are filled with people who really don’t want to teach, of course the pursuit of other means of funding takes precedence.

    To be fair, some faculty take teaching more seriously (these are more likely to be female than male, btw) and there are serious efforts underway to improve teaching. The culture changes slowly, however.

  3. Don Jackson

    For those who must write academically, there’s LyX… (Wikipedia’s article is a good place to start.)

  4. Scotian

    “Students, students, students.”
    This means teaching evaluations which means entertainment not teaching.

    “I would provide my own pencils. Ha ha.”
    In reference to the old joke, mathematicians only need pencils and erasers but philosophers only pencils.

    “To which, I said, there were too many papers for anybody to read.”
    J. Barzun said something along that line as well that one should read many times more than one writes.

    “Academic “freedom” now means teach these courses with these pre-defined syllabi with these textbooks and cover these topics in this order.”
    This seems odd. I’ve never encountered this level of restriction at university.

    “Eccentricity is not tolerated.”
    Tenure first, eccentricity later.

    “The utter tyranny of MS Word!”
    My experience has been just the opposite. I have found writing a lot easier and spell check is a real Godsend and then there is Origin for graphs, such bliss. The constant need to proof read the work of typists who make new mistakes with each iteration, shutter. Journal galley proofs also make fewer errors now that they work with electronic manuscripts. Then there was the need to deal with draftsman. Your golden age is dross, at least in this respect. My only advice is to delay updating software as long as possible.

    You should have followed the technique of The Last Psychiatrist and remained anonymous.

  5. Heh. You think academia’s bad, you should see what the private sector is like! On the other hand, you’d have to do what you do as a hobby if you were in the private sector, unless you could sell tens of thousands of those books. And who’d be reading them anyway? Academia.

    You certainly do point out a big problem with academia these days, though. It’s the ‘Everyone has to do everything’ attitude. It permeates the entire system. It’s just ridiculous. There’s nothing wrong with specialization, with having stronger and lesser suits. It’s also economical. We can’t be all things.


  6. Ken

    Teaching & doing research are NOT mutually exclusive; nor is pursuing one’s avocation on the side.

    It’s the very rare person who’s avocation is also their vocation. The aggressive insistence on trying to make one’s avocation also be one’s vocation, actually expecting this as a viable possibility, and then bemoaning the “publish or perish” reality (which derives from other realities of the world that conspire to create this), is _______.

    See also: Matthew 25:14-30

  7. The world might be better off without government supported research. Way back when (sixty years or so ago) our microwave spectroscopy equipment was government surplus stuff. I spent my own money to buy a transform for a discharge tube… In academic positions, teaching was secondary–it was how many grants and how much that counted. $200 k/year was a minimum for prestige ( I was way lower than that–about 50/60 k). This was true at a private institution presumably noted for its excellence of education and at a state institution not so noted.
    The funding environment is responsible for the flood of nonsense published about anthropic warming, lgbt studies, and all the other foolishness. Well, at least I can read philosophy now without worrying about having to write a grant proposal to justify time spent.

  8. Bob, you take out “government” money, all the way back, we still wouldn’t have even reached the Dark Ages yet, and thoughts like Briggs’ would probably not even be allowed, let alone understood.


  9. Scotian

    “Bob, you take out “government” money, all the way back, we still wouldn’t have even reached the Dark Ages yet”.
    This is very funny, oh wait hold on, you actually meant to say something else.

  10. JH

    You were interviewed by an elite university, and told them that you did not want to do research?! “I don’t see why not.”- http://dilbert.com/strips/comic/2003-08-27/

    Strange post. Anyway, there are reasons that there exits so called department of philosophy. It is never too late to change your career. Massimo again.

  11. JMJ, if you look at the history of science, the great advances in science up to World War II–thermodynamics, atomic and molecular theory, relativity, quantum mechanics were done WITHOUT government support (unless you count that Einstein was a clerk in the Swiss patent office when he wrote the three great 1905 papers.) That all changed after World War II (I was in at the beginning of this change) after governments found that science/engineering could be used to generate war weapons. Before that scientists either had their own means, or private/academic patrons, and since it wasn’t necessary to build high energy devices, laboratory research was relatively simple and inexpensive. If you look at the Rutherford experiment which showed the existence of an atomic nucleus (as opposed to the “plum-pudding” model of the atom) it involved only a radioactive source, a metal foil and a simple scintillation detector…a cost I’d guess of no more than a few hundred dollars (it’s duplicated in lots of physics labs). I can cite lots more examples.

  12. Briggs

    JH, Scotian,

    No, no. I said I do not want to write grants. That is very different, n’est-ce pas?

    Should I lie to get the job?

  13. Scotian

    JH is correct in this case. You might consider a course in how to survive a job interview; it did wonders for me. Your friends will never tell you the truth.

  14. Katie

    I know a man who was hired at a higher level in an extension office of a large university. He bounced in bright as a button on the first day, and after learning where the light switch and coffee maker was, said something to the effect, “When do I get to meet my assistant?” His attention was directed to the computer, and the answer was, “There’s your assistant.”

  15. Bob, history is my specialty, and I can state without any hesitation that you are wrong. Without government funding, be it from a marginal medieval duke, or NASA, science would be nowhere near where it is today. You’re just not seeing the big picture here.


  16. Scotian

    “Should I lie to get the job?” Lying is dishonest but compulsively blurting out random thoughts is a sign of interview stress and needs to be controlled. But then I wasn’t there and so who am I to judge, especially since I am a blunt blurter from a way back.

    History may be your speciality but you may be overlooking Frederic Bastiat and his ”That which is seen, and that which is not seen”. What is seen is government monopoly and direction of research and technology which can lead to the assumption that it had to be thus. What is not seen is what would happen without this interference. Very thin material to conclude that “science would be nowhere near where it is today”. A striking counter example to your claim is the device on which I am writing this comment. Computer innovation exploded in the seventies when the computing patents were successfully challenged in court and the field was thrown wide open with the dead hand of government (the patent office) somewhat relaxed. We have to thank a few nerds working out of a garage and not NASA and some duke.

  17. JMJ, I guess we’ll have to leave it as a disagreement–my citation of several examples, and your general statement…
    By the way, I’ve studied the history of science (haven’t taught any courses in it except incidentally as an adjunct of General Ed course in thermo), and I just wish history of science was given as compulsory rather than the chemistry/physics/biology which students not going on in further in science never remember or use..

  18. JMJ, here are the exceptions to my claim that I know of: da Vinci’s support from the Italian nobility; Count Rumford’s support from the Bavarian government (mainly for reorganizing the military); an increase in stipend to Galileo from the Venetian government for the right to manufacture telescopes (which was worthless–given the non-patentability situation), and which increase was later frozen. Maybe you can name some others. And I’m talking of pre-World War II.

  19. Briggs


    My strong preference for putting students first and eschewing needless grants in no way indicates “interview stress.”

    Read the whole Oxford article. The 70s were superior.

  20. Bob, what about the schools in which the scientists taught and attended? How do you think most of these guys even had the time to do any research? Who ponied up the money for the research?

    You’re just not looking at the big picture.


  21. Look, there’s a good reason most scientists are not anti-government types…


  22. Sheri

    JMJ: There are reasons why most scientists are not anti-government types. Whether they are “good” reasons is debatable.

  23. jmj, oxford and cambridge had private money, or from the Church. And there were also those upper middle class scholars who used their own money (like Lord Kelvin). They had teaching jobs (or government jobs like Einstein in the Swiss patent office) but THEY DIDN’T HAVE GRANTS. They would have been doing, as in the 1970’s anecdote supplied by Briggs, as a function of their teaching position. The big picture is that the ultimate source of funds was private, not government, except in a few special cases. And it wasn’t a system of grantsmanship. There is a difference in kind, not just degree in how science was supported pre World War-II and after. The German universities were, I’ll grant, supported by the state–but scholars, not research projects were supported… The American scientists who went to German in the 20’s to learn about quantum mechanics were supported by private grants, not government. There was NO grantsmanship, no scientific entrepeneurship, pre-World War II, and that was a GOOD thing. As I pointed out in my original post, I bought the required transformer from Radio Shack with my own money (on a fellowship of $1200/year) and that was a good thing.

  24. JH


    Forget how my high school English teacher overemphasized on how to answer negative questions, please forgive me for thinking that a self-published, non-referred book is not counted as “research’. OK, let me fix my misunderstanding.

    You were interviewed by an elite university. You told them that if they are to hire you, they are to accept your expectations –
    (a) a self-published, non-referred book on some foundational area, e.g., college algebra, should be given full credits as research;
    (b) you expect to be tenured for writing such a book because in your opinion it is a more superior venue than journals for disseminating NEW ideas and results for peer review before and after publication;
    (c) they are not to expect any granting writing form you; and
    (d) academic freedom means that you can do whatever you want once you are hired. That is, you ought to be able to teach whatever and however you want in a course titled “sampling survey” or “time series analysis” or “ statistical programming in SAS.” Hell with syllabus (which is often seen as specific responsibilities for instructors)!


    (P.S. It really doesn’t matter what words you’ve said exactly or if you are being honest! You don’t get to write job descriptions and responsibilities. )

  25. Scotian

    “I just wish history of science was given as compulsory rather than the chemistry/physics/biology which students not going on in further in science never remember or use”.
    Then we would be out of a job. 🙂 Also the history of science courses are often given by the rabidly anti-science.

    “which was worthless–given the non-patentability situation”.
    Here we will have to disagree. Patents slow down innovation as illustrated by my example above. Other examples are the fact that steam engine development stagnated until James Watts’ patents expired and the airplane development in the USA fell behind Europe despite an early lead because of the Wright brother patents.

    “You’re just not looking at the big picture”.
    Is this really all that you’ve got?

    “How do you think most of these guys even had the time to do any research?”
    Let me see if I understand this. The totalitarian nature of the state means that your very existence is due to the largesse of our benevolent rulers and that in the words of a recent politician “You didn’t build that”.

    “Read the whole Oxford article. The 70s were superior.”
    I did and in some ways this is correct and in others it is not. The inflection point is often given as 1982-3.

  26. Sheri

    JH: I think you’re missing the point. Briggs described the school as:
    Kind which boasts, and boasts loudly, how students come first. Teaching means something here, not like at those Big Places. Yes, sir. Students, students, students.

    It’s not really clear how grants and research projects are “for the students”. It seems the teaching position is more for the university and prestige rather than the actual education of the students.

  27. good point Scotian, about history of science being taught by rabidly anti-science folk…but how about if scientists taught such courses? They would convey a special insight (being players of the game) and it would give them some depth in their vocation.

  28. Scotian, I should add that when I taught the General ED course on thermo, I was on a very steep learning curve about the beginnings of that discipline.

  29. JH

    Sherri, that students come first doesn’t imply that there should not be any research standards. Fixed-term faculty members are usually exempt from research and service. Plenty of schools don’t require research for tenure.

  30. Sheri

    My question was: How does doing research benefit the students? How do grants benefit the students? If it’s “about the students”, then there needs to be benefit to the students if research and grant writing are required.

    I don’t know what a “fixed-term” faculty member is. Could you explain? Maybe that’s what someone who doesn’t do research would want to look for?

  31. Sheri, there are undergraduate/teaching emphasized institutions where research is a necessary component of performance–Bucknell I know for one and I believe also Bryn Mawr (at least from 60 years ago when I interviewed there). The benefit to the undergraduate is that they can participate in research projects, and participating in a research project is a learning experience–it makes everything that you’ve learned come alive.

  32. Scotian

    I should add that Asimov, in his autobiography, explains how he was forced out of a tenured position at Boston University because of his refusal to bring in research grant money as he preferred to write books on general science. This was circa 1960 and so the problem is not entirely new. I do agree that the problem has more recently spread to the smaller teaching colleges.

  33. Asperger's?

    RE: “The 70s were better.”

    Consider the Oct 2010 series, The Corporatization of the University; here’s the links:


    Given the detailed understanding, nearly some four years ago [at least] of what universities have become and why they’ve changed as they have — basically moving from a non-profit organizational model to a capitalistic model — why hasn’t that insight, after a half-decade [at least] of whining about that fundamental change, “sunk in”?

    Maybe “The 70s were superior.” But that’s irrelevant to the present reality. Behaving in a manner one knows (and has known for years) conflicts with the university’s capitalistic operating model, and then reporting back frustration & surprise when the university acts & responds as anyone would expect is “peculiar,” to put it mildly.

    When one repeatedly writes a pro-capitalistic/anti-socialistic political & economic viewpoint applicable to, & endorsed for, everywhere & everyone — except where one would like to work — isn’t that a tad hypocritical?
    Say students come first…then lament at length about which research is to be done –“my” research (in which “they” aren’t interested) or “their” research (in which “you” aren’t interested). What’s really going on there?

    Implicit is that grant-supported research is “bad” and by extension would impact putting students first. But really?? Is the time spent doing research adverse to supporting students [putting them first] only when that research isn’t to the prof’s liking/when it’s grant-funded? Where’s the data supporting that?

    Would a prof spend more time away from students doing research of less interest vs. doing research that’s personally appealing?

    Human nature being what it is, a person tends to devote more time to those things personally appealing & less to those things less personally appealing. The logical inference is that a prof that actually want’s to put students first but also has to do research will put more effort into putting students first if they’re doing research they have less interest in (they could delegate more to grad students, etc. freeing themselves up for other, more appealing, work). That’s human nature . Thus, if one’s #1 priority was to “put students first” one would be more effective at achieving that asserted objective if doing research having less intrinsic appeal.

    That research of a personal interest was the dominant factor (“mine” vs. “theirs,” based on the presentation), objective review of the info presents leads one to infer/conclude that ‘doing the research “I” want to do,’ is the real priority rather than ‘putting student’s first.’ I.E., both parties espouse the noble cause to conceal what is really the pursuit of much more selfish/self-serving objectives.

  34. Sheri

    Bob K: I thought about that. I suppose I was hoping there was some way the research could be paid for by something other than government grants. I do see that having students participate in research is important.

  35. Francsois

    Briggs, you have a bad attitude! Of course you will not get a job if you insist on having it your way entirely! You can learn from Margaret Thatcher: she had ideals, but had to wait quite a long time before she could implement them the way she wanted to, she had to compromise a lot. Sometimes she had to do things that were quite the opposite of her vision, but the end justified the means in her case. We have a responsibility to try and make the world a better place. In your case it is to teach statistics to students and make them see the light. If you have to hand in one measly research paper per annum, or write your books in your own time, so be it. If that is what it takes!
    You must have known that you would not get the job by saying the things you did, why bother going for the interview at all?



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *