University Professors Teach Too Much: Part I

Read Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV.

We are asking our best university professors to spend too much time in the classroom. It would be better for all if these professors were not made to toil the five to seven-plus hours a week required to competently teach classes such as “Pre-college mathematics” and “Introduction to reading” to ill-prepared, largely unmotivated high school graduates.

What should they do instead? What they do best: figure things out, tell us what they have found, and train apprentices to carry on their work after they have gone.

Here is what everybody knows: the best researchers are often not the best teachers. Statistically, the relationship is negatively correlated. Prowess in the lab implies indexterity in the classroom. This is natural. An individual managing four graduate students, one post-doc, writing a new grant, revising an old one, and writing papers from the results of a third cannot devote adequate energy to preparing a Friday-morning quiz on “What is a paragraph?” to freshmen, of which a non-trivial fraction are hungover or otherwise sleep deprived. I am speaking “on average”, of the predominant reality, and therefore it would be a fallacy to counter with examples of exceptional researchers who are also brilliant teachers.

The difficulty with the spate of books and articles on the awfulness of higher education is that each picks one culprit that, once defeated, will release the system from its bonds. This assumes a linearity of ills. But this is not found in practice. There is not one problem, there are many, and each is related to the other in the same way tangled fishing lines lead to hooks. The best we can hope for is incremental, occasional improvement.

One increment is this: increase class buyouts and make them all or nothing. We all know people who boast they do not have to teach. The implication is that they have more time to do the real work to which they are best suited. Those who would devote themselves to productive, useful research—as defined by external grant agencies and companies—should not be forced into teaching, which eats valuable time. Let those who would run their professorships like businesses do so. This system has proven itself in producing lasting and valuable knowledge.

Universities should become bipartite: college and research institute under one banner. In practice, each would—and should—have little to do with the other, though they would share the same name and school colors. The college mandate is to teach all undergraduate courses and those graduate courses which are non-specialized. The people that man colleges should not be researchers—unless, as will be rare, somebody wants to cross the line and write a paper on a subject dear to them. The people that man research institutes should not be teachers—unless, as will be rare, somebody wants to cross the line for a temporary change of scenery. It would be best if some “universities” eschew all research (via attrition of workers) and become solely colleges. Other universities should separate from, or eliminate their college components, and become solely research institutes.

At first, this system is bound to produce jealousies. Teachers in colleges will look at their better paid brethren and sisthren in research institutes and feel envy. When reporters come calling for quotes about what the “Latest research shows…” they will do so at research institutes and not colleges. Teachers will ask, “Why do I have to teach five classes a semester when Joe just sits in his office writing grants?”

It will be in vain to explain that this compares apples to oranges. Teachers aren’t researchers, and researchers aren’t teachers. It will do little good to say, “Okay, if you want to do research, then do it. Spend your sabbatical writing a grant and change jobs.” One job is not inherently superior to another: they cannot be, because they are different things. Apples are only superior to oranges if you want to make pie. If anything, teaching is the more crucial position to society, though it is true that the wait for results is long.

To alleviate pain, we can employ a device businesses use: inflated titles. Just as all those who were stock boys are now “Associates”, teachers, dissatisfied with being called “Professor” when researchers share that label, could be called Exalted Expostulators, Level III. Even better, researchers should not be given the title of “Professor.” Just call them “Researchers” (and prefix this with “Associate” etc. to indicate rank).

The “PhD” should not be a requirement to teach. Nor should the lack of it, as William James admonished us over a century ago, be a bar to research. Having those letters are surely correlated with ability, but they are not especially predictive of it, particularly in teaching. It is ability that should be measured, not raw credentials. Having graduated college—but not having been apprenticed to a researcher—is the minimum necessary to teach. Researchers retired from active pursuit of papers and profits often make good teachers, though most of this improvement comes from the seasoning of years.

Overhead—that large percent that is tacked onto most grants but which is not given to researchers and instead disappears into the labyrinth of administration–in this system should be easier to track. Monies brought in by research institutes should remain on that side of the universities. Student tuition should likewise stay in colleges. Since these are separate organizations (though perhaps under one roof), their budgets should not be mixed. Success in one area does not imply success in the other. Good teachers should not finance poor research, nor should productive researchers be forced to pay for the existence of departments that have nothing to do with them.

Read Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV.


If you are a professor or researcher, please email this article to a colleague or administrator.


  1. Doug M

    Universities have traditionally argued that teaching the occasional class sharpens the professor’s skills. The professor must know the fundamentals of his field in order to teach it. To the degree that this is true has been debated for as long as there have been universities. As an example of a pure research facility, there is the IAS at Princeton. Many have been underwhelmed by the lack of output considering the quality of the talent that has been there, and blame this on the heavy bias toward theorists at the expense of experimenters and students.

  2. Speed

    As an undergraduate I asked the dean of our College of Arts and Sciences why they wanted to make researchers teach when they weren’t very good at it. He replied that it was only the active researchers that were up to date in their field. I then asked how much change there had been in undergraduate chemistry in the previous two decades. Thus ended the conversation.

  3. obiwankenobi

    Great perspective. Thanks.
    Biology’s changed significantly since I was a grad student though I’m not convinced that an active researcher’s required to teach the new Biology fundamentals.

    BTW: Am wondering, if separation of “those who can” from “those who can’t” would make any difference in the peer review process. Eg. The PRP for climate science indicts key journals, editors and researchers — at least if “The Hockey Stick Illusion: Climategate and the Corruption of Science” by AW Montford (aka Bishop Hill) accurately covers the salient historic subject features.

  4. Ken

    All true…like all things…to a point. But implicit in the presentation is that all works as all ought to work. What if incentives & groupthink & etc. lead to perverse outcomes?

    That is, wouldn’t a bitartite entity further sequester “competent” researchers from interaction with people (students) that have some connection to the “real world” — thus facilitating further ivory tower, incestuous thinking, etc. etc.?

  5. William Sears

    The strongest objections to your plan will come from the humanities and related disciplines which do not have access to sufficient funds to make the plan work. The science and engineering departments already have done what you suggest to a large extent. Also you must remember that the professors who will be in the best position to game the new system are past their prime. It is the graduate students and postdoctoral fellows who are the most creative members of any research lab. I would suggest a somewhat different system. Shorten the formal education system so that young vibrant minds can be free of their educratic shackles and start work in research labs before their brains ossify. This is why many of the most innovative members of society have dropped out of college. Once this is done we can consider research institutes independent of the college. They should preferable be financed with private or industrial money.

  6. Yes indeedy, toiling “the five to seven-plus hours a week required to competently teach classes” is a tremendous chore and certainly deserving of lofty titles and loftier pay, benefits, pensions, tenure, etc.

    The Privileged Class needs more pay and less work. I think we can all agree about that.

    Here’s another plan. Give all the grant money to the students and let them distribute it as they see fit. If they want to pay for research, fine. If not, fine. If they want to hire teachers who toil five to seven plus hours a week, fine. If not, fine.

    The idea is that the consumers get what they pay for, no more, no less. If the students want to stay drunk all the time, fine. After four years the party is over, with or without a degree, although if the students want to purchase degrees, that’s fine, too.

    The cream will rise to the top. The people capable of taking responsibility for their own lives will do so. Those who shun responsibility can have a nice party and then go live in housing projects and beg on the street. The proof is in the individual, not in the diploma.

    If business needs real research and researchers, they can pay for it. They do now. If they want competent workers, they can train them. They do now.

    The university system has lost it’s relevance to the real world.

  7. Karl Z.

    For some additional perspective:

    In my past life, I worked for one of these research institutions co-located on a college campus. My official title was “Assistant Research Scientist” and, later, “Assistant Research Engineer” after I got my professional engineering license. (Sound familiar?) These titles were designed this way to distinguish research-only personnel from the academics, who might also work for the research institute. Originally, this research institute was founded by professors to do research, but had changed over to primarily non-teaching personnel over the years. This worked fine for non-teachers…but teachers had problems getting enough time to teach AND do research–“half-time” appointments for each actually meant “three-quarter-time” workload for each–which adds up to 1.5x, or 60 hours/wk.

    Also, “research” varies by field. For liberal arts, “research” often means reading two obscure books to write a third obscure book that will only be used to write a fourth obscure book. In my field (civil engineering), we do that, too, but that’s the literature review. After that, the real work starts–data collection, theoretical development, analysis, testing, finalizing models, developing tools for practitioners (which have to be both simple and effective), writing reports and papers to stay employed, not to mention the accounting and administration. A liberal arts professor can do his or her research over the summer, or whenever. I can’t, and my sponsors want results NOW. Okay, NOW. How about NOW? Got anything YET? Hurry up! (My sub-area tends to have high-tempo, low-funded projects for very impatient people.)

    Next, my current “home” is at a teaching college, with a primarily liberal arts focus by the administration. I am expected to do research AND teach 3-4 classes per semester because research isn’t that difficult and can always be done in the summer, right? I can’t buy off class time. Even if I could, four to six classes per year is 2x more than most faculty teach. I taught more classes in my first year than one assistant professor at my old school did in four. A typical civil engineering department has 12+ faculty. Ours has six. If we have a major injury or illness, or even a sabbatical, we’re screwed! We’ve been there. Without research, there is no way university administration will ever allow any more than the bare minimum of teachers in a department–the overhead “extortion” money for the administration isn’t there. The faculty will also be paid as little as possible (bottom 1% of all faculty!), and worked as hard as possible, because this side of the shop has no immediate value. The researchers will make more money and have more prestige. Always.

    Finally, if you want to teach well, or are evaluated on it, then the time it takes is considerable. My time isn’t 5-7 hours a week in the classroom (which I assume is for one class). My time is more like 10-15 hours a week per class, PLUS university, college, and department meetings…that easily hits 60 hours a week. If you pawn off your responsibilities for grading to someone else, and are teaching the same class you’ve taught for years with the same notes, then yeah, the time commitment can be minimal per class. I don’t (and can’t) do that–I’m redeveloping classes virtually every time I teach them, because it went from 2 days a week to three, or the design procedures and codes changed. I’ve been in my current position four years and have NEVER taught the same class the same way twice. (I’ve also taught–and developed–ten different classes in the same time. If you want hard, develop up-to-date technical classes from scratch while trying to do research.)

    My point is…it isn’t all the same, and it doesn’t all fit into the same mold. I watch other faculty in other departments and I don’t know what they do with themselves all day. I’m busy dawn to dusk and beyond trying to stay afloat. I don’t think Matt’s proposal is necessarily a workable solution. I’ve been there and seen that not work, either. So…what’s the best model?

    And, Mike D., do you want doctors learning basic anatomy and surgical technique on the job, when your life is at stake? How about engineers learning design principals and material behavior by trial and error? No, the “academy” hasn’t lost it’s relevance for technical fields, especially life and death ones. Where it fails is the other stuff, the degree inflation Matt complains about. That’s the stuff that needs to stop.

  8. Noblesse Oblige

    “the best researchers are often not the best teachers.” This has not been my experience. When I think back on my best teachers, every one of them was also a highly regarded researcher, some still revered after decades. But not all great researchers were great teachers, so:

    P(great researcher|great teacher) ~ 1
    P(great teacher|great researcher)~ maybe 1/2

  9. Dear Karl,

    There are plenty of things that doctors and engineers can learn in classrooms. I am not opposed to teaching — I am in favor of it.

    My point is that budding doctors and engineers who do not listen and learn in the classroom become quacks and frauds, and end up killing people before they are drummed out of their professions.

    The solution is to put the onus on the students. If they are not there to learn, they will not succeed at their future jobs. The responsibility is theirs. They should hire and fire the teachers, not some flipping administrator with an entirely different set of motivations.

    Too often faculty are hired for reasons different from, even antithetical to, their ability to teach students. And the students know it and suffer because of it, as do the professions the students eventually enter.

    Let the students chose their mentors. If somebody else makes the choices, chances are the students will not be well-served.

    And as far as research goes, universities are not innovative, not entrepreneurial, not subject to the vagaries of the marketplace, and hence not good at research. The best and the brightest researchers get skimmed off by the private sector. Why not go that route whole hog and forget about low quality publicly funded university research (which in my profession is not only poor quality, it’s often completely backasswards as well as exorbitantly expensive).

  10. ErisGuy

    April 1 came early I see.

  11. JH

    One may say that “many of the most innovative members of society have dropped out of college.” However, many many more who have not dropped out have succeeded!!!

    Why do brightest students from around the world come here to pursue post-graduate degrees? The researchers in the US are the best teachers to those graduate students. What makes America great?!

    Supervising a graduate student takes a great deal of work and time. Oftentimes research ideas come from faculty, and graduate students carry out the ideas and are the problem solvers… under faculty guidance.

    One of the most important lessons that I took away from going through graduate school is that how little I know. There is no way that I could acquire in-depth knowledge on a job.

    I have always thought that a person with the necessary knowledge can be a good teacher if he is willing to put forth effort and time. However, it would take more than effort and time to be a good scholar.

    Yes, there is always room for improvement!

  12. Bruce Foutch

    Mr. Briggs,

    Seems this education topic is making the rounds:

    “From Students, a Misplaced Sense of Entitlement”

    By Elayne Clift, in The Chronicle of Higher Education

    “It was the semester from hell. In my 20 years as an adjunct faculty member, I had taught in the Ivy League and at community colleges, in Brattleboro and Bangkok, in under­graduate and graduate schools. Never had I seen such extraordinarily bad behavior in my students.”

    “When teachers refuse to lower standards, those students seem to resort to a new code of conduct that includes acted-out rage, lack of respect, and blame. That behavior is fueled by the absence of clear standards from the administration, and of administrators who care about learning, not just financial ledgers.”

  13. Briggs


    Thank you. Key line: “A sense of entitlement now pervades the academy, excellence be damned.”

    Now wherever could the darlings have developed this sense?

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