Last week Inside Higher Ed reported on an intriguing paper by Dahlia K. Remler and Elda Pema, a professor of public affairs and economics, respectively, that began to try to analyze the reasons professors engage in research “at the expense of teaching time.” In the report, titled “The Mystery of Faculty Priorities,” Scott Jaschik listed some of Remler and Pema’s preliminary conclusions, while also noting that the paper’s main contribution is to point out how understudied the issue is.
I found the article, and the comments on it, provocative, particularly because I spent much of last week asking myself the same question that the article raises: why do we do research? As usual in May, I’m working on a conference paper. I stared at a blank screen for much of last week, trying to remember why I wrote what seemed like a brilliant abstract last January, but now seemed vague and unfamiliar. As I do every May, I asked myself, “why do I do research?” The rewards, at this stage in my career, are small; the costs, in terms of time spent with family or time spent directly on teaching, can at times be high. And yet this week, as more reading has breathed life into the abstract and I’ve generated more text, more ideas, more notes, I think I know: I do research because it’s how I stay involved in my field. The next time I teach the books I’m writing about I’ll have new things to say about them, new questions to ask.
The reverse is true as well: my current research project on literature and education came directly out of my teaching. In my current work, I’m writing about three novels, one of which I’ve taught several times. Each time I teach it I learn something new; the result of several years’ teaching experience with this text is about to find its way into print, and I’m now exploring a new approach to it. Another one I have not yet taught, but I hosted its author in an on-campus visit two years ago and introduced it to a number of students, whose responses encouraged me to continue to think about it. The third is new, and I haven’t yet found a place for it on my syllabus. But I will. Indeed, I’m hoping to develop a new first-year course on the interrelations of literature and K-12 education — the focus of my current work, but also, it seems to me, a good way to bring students into the study of literature, since they have such recent first-hand experience of the K-12 education system.
I may not, then, publish my research in a top journal (though I may). If I don’t, I won’t reap the most obvious rewards of research: public recognition by my peers and advancement in the academic hierarchy. But I’ll still have achieved my own main goal for research, which is to reinvigorate my teaching and expand my knowledge of my field. Is it naïve to think I’m not alone in this? I don’t think so. But I do find myself agreeing with the commenters on last week’s article, that we need to rethink how we measure and name research as we continue to think about how and why we reward it. I’ll keep doing what I do because it makes me better at my job—or so I like to think. I’d like to be part of a system that recognizes and rewards that improvement, too.