Kathy McDonnell ’88 writes:

I read the blog infrequently — but . . . back in October you wrote:

“A grant like this makes it clear that “teaching” ability needs to be broadly understood in the context of a place like Williams. I often claim that “research” — publishing scholarly articles and books — should play almost no part in the College’s hiring/tenure/promotion decisions. ”

I must disagree. Research is an important part of being a professor. And research directly affects teaching. If you do not continue to do research after you hand in your dissertation, you essentially teach your students only what you learned in grad school and you do not stay current with new ideas and new evidence in your field. I bring my research into the classroom everyday! And sometimes my students change how I look at my research; the two are — should be — inextricably linked.

It is important to keep in mind two different uses of the word “research” in this context. First, “research” can mean “keeping up with the latest developments in your field and using them in your teaching.” I suspect that we all agree that this is a good thing. Almost all good teachers do this. Of course, as in all things, there are tradeoffs involved. I would rather have a teacher that was very good at leading a discussion about The Republic even if she doesn’t keep up to date on the latest classics research than one who spent lots of time reading the latest journal articles but who can’t competently lead a seminar.

Ideally, of course, you would like to have both. But the key point is that “research” in this context is subsumed under the general category of “teaching.” There are many aspects to excellent teaching and keeping abreast of developments in one’s field is one of them, although not nearly as important as other aspects, especially at a place like Williams.

The second meaning of “research” is “publish articles and books in your field.” This is the aspect of research that is overrated at Williams, and places like Williams. Tim Burke, professor at Swarthmore, has some great commentary here. Read the whole thing if you really care about what “research” should mean at Williams. The key paragraph is:

A liberal arts college, on the other hand, should be encouraging exactly the opposite path of development in its faculty. Rather than rewarding professors for their increasing detailed expertise in a highly specialized area of research, it should reward them for broadening outwards from their initial base of knowledge, reward them for forging connections between disparate areas of knowledge, reward them for extending their work as intellectuals beyond the campus and beyond academia.

How can we possibly ask our students to gain an appreciation of the whole structure of knowledge if we ourselves rarely glance beyond the confines of a narrow specialization? If our students have distribution requirements and the like, then so should the faculty.

There is a lot more to discuss here and I suspect that Kathy and I don’t disagree that much on the topic. My main point is that it does not matter to the quality of the education that Williams students receive whether or not Williams professors publish specialized articles in obscure journals that few people (and virtually no Williams students) read.

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