Why is research higher status than teaching?

An intriguing post by  of Worthwhile Canadian Blog (blog should be renamed as Worthalot Canadian blog).

We often say what matters most in good education places is research. Teaching anyone can do and what differentiates education places is the quality of research. Woolley does not really agree:

It is a truth universally acknowledged: within academia, research has higher status than teaching. The question is, why?

High status work is generally well paid work, and vice versa. Wages are determined by market forces, so supply and demand is the first place to look for an explanation for the high status of research.  

Perhaps research is highly valued because it is in short supply. Scarcity explains the high status accorded to those with truly brilliant, original and creative minds. But scarcity cannot explain why dime-a-dozen mediocre researchers are accorded higher status than excellent teachers.

Moreover, the scarcity of research is, in a sense, artificially created. There are a limited number of people publishing in ‘top journals’ only because the number of top journals is limited. Research would be about as scarce as blog posts in a world where people self-published their own work.

Even if we think research is scarce, people are hardly willing to pay for it:

But what is the market for papers such as “On the Asymptotic Optimality of Empirical Likelihood for Testing Moment Restrictions”? I don’t have any information on willingness-to-pay for academic research in general, but as Secretary Treasurer of the Canadian Economics Association (managing the financial side of the Canadian Journal of Economics (CJE)), and also as Business Editor for Canadian Public Policy (CPP), I had opportunities to observe willingness to pay for particular research articles. JStor makes the entire back catalogue of CPP and CJE available on-line. Students and faculty can access the articles at no charge through university libraries; people outside academica pay an access fee of $5 to $9 per article. As Secretary Treasurer, every quarter I would receive statements listing the articles downloaded, and a small cheque from JStor. Of the hundreds of articles available in the two journals, only a few dozen were ever purchased on-line, suggesting that the general public’s willingness to pay for the output of a typical academic researcher is pretty low. 

One gets to read so many papers which are just a waste. See the comment on this paper for instance 🙂

So why research trumps teaching? It acts as a strong signal:

But if the actual substance of much academic research is only of intelligible to a small group of scholars, why is it accorded such high status? Why are taxpayers prepared to fund research intensive universities? Why do undergraduate students choose to attend research intensive universities, even though the “top scholars” may have little contact with undergrads?

I think this is because research output is a signal of ability. To function as a signal, an activity must have two properties. First, it must be easy to observe. Research output, like peacock feathers, is readily measurable. Publications and citations can be counted, journals can be ranked. Second, an effective signal of ability must be easier for a high ability person to produce than a low ability person. For example, jogging is an effective signal of fitness because it’s easier for fit people to jog than for out of shape people

And with teaching we have none of this:

Teaching just does not work as a signal in the same way. First, top rate teaching is extraordinarily difficult to measure. Sure teaching can be evaluated using standard metrics such as student evaluations, or by education professionals, who will assess a professor’s audibility, organization, and so on. Indeed, these metrics are valuable for identifying poor teachers, and helping individual teachers improve their performance. Yet they do not strike at the heart of the great teaching. Great teaching is about deep understanding, helping students see the world in a different way. Measuring that? Impossible. 

Second, I don’t know if teaching performance is as highly correlated with intelligence, creativity, and originality as research performance is. Certainly a lot of things that students value in a teacher – being well-organized, conscientious, predictable, approachable, and sympathetic – are not necessarily correlated with raw intelligence scores. 

Most would agree to this. Good teaching is about good communications and deep know-how of the subject.

Though I agree with most of what author says, I think there is a case for more. In economic analysis when we look at two choices, we  say choose this or this. The solution could also be  this and this. This is indeed the case here.

What is important is to combine research with teaching. Good teachers keep a track of the good and useful research and share it with students to make the conversation lively. The students also understand that the teacher is in touch with latest developments. Good researchers on the other hand need to understand the relevant issues facing the students and society and do research on those areas. Instead of doing papers like “On the Asymptotic Optimality of Empirical Likelihood for Testing Moment Restrictions” one could be doing papers like “What explains the Occupy Wall Street Movement”? or “Whether EMU in current form is functional?

Both rub into each other. And that is how it should be…


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