The perils of research

An increased focus on research will incur a great amount of impact on the second clause, "Teaching and Learning," if the words were plastered against the broad side of Coffman.

You can’t throw a snowball on campus without hitting a reminder that the University is en route to becoming one of the nation’s top research institutions. The result of this objective will open up many opportunities for students and faculty, while ranking the university among the most elite in this country. It will also contribute to the first of three clauses outlined in the school’s “Research and Discovery” mission:

“Generate and preserve knowledge, understanding, and creativity by conducting high-quality research, scholarship, and artistic activity that benefit students, scholars, and communities across the state, the nation, and the world.”

Yet, with all the efforts invested in campaigning awareness for the burgeoning research opportunities at this university, a 1200-pound cherry couldn’t hit the impact that an increased focus on research will incur on the second clause, “Teaching and Learning,” if the words were plastered against the broad side of Coffman Union.

While an increased devotion to research creates a more prestigious university for students, it may also give way to anxiety for scholars in pursuit of tenure.

Publish or perish has become academia’s mantra.

Immense pressure to frequently conduct research and publish papers in academic journals situates faculty members between a rock and a hard place when trying to keep a balance of quality in teaching and publishing credentials. The latter, however, trumps the former in protecting one’s position at an academic institution.

Under this publish or perish criterion, professors must devote more concentration on research scholarship than classroom preparation. Along with this, the scholarship that results from the pressure to publish is prone to decreased value and significance – which may explain that article from your CSCL class that argues how Tarantino’s obsession with bathrooms in “Pulp Fiction” justifies Lacanian ideology and the status of the impossible. As the “American way” goes, the quantity of published papers on a scholar’s résumé trumps the quality and impact made in advancing knowledge within an area of study.

A superfluous number of journals have emerged to accommodate the growing competition in the publishing market. As a result of this emergence, journals have stratified in congruence with the various academic tiers. Elite journals retain their prestige, while the other publishers have lowered the bar and publish substandard work.

The science and social science fields make use of a system, called the impact factor, which measures that importance of a journal. This proxy is calculated by the frequency a published paper is cited.

However, this is a problematic way to measure a journal’s quality, as the scales are disproportionate to the actual impact of a journal. Fundamentally, the number of citations in a journal does not indicate the quality of its articles, but a mark of popularity.

On the Physics Today news site, professor of mechanical engineering at Virginia Commonwealth University Mohamed Gad-el-Hak, notes the 250-plus journals published just in English on his area study, fluid mechanics. “As important as I like to think fluid mechanics is, it is a mere branch of continuum mechanics, itself a branch of mechanics, which is part of classical physics, and so on. Not considering the multitude of other languages for a moment, who can keep up with 250 journals?”

With the pressure to publish, and availability to do so, how much time can teachers devote to teaching? Multi-tasking must be an occupational hazard in order to stay afloat. Institutions are now in a spot to place relatively more importance on classroom capabilities as university enrollment flourishes and competition heightens. But measuring the quality of a teacher’s worth in the classroom is even more problematic than journals, as the referees are now opinionated students, rather than peer review experts.

Seasoned academics are one step ahead of the young bucks in this aspect. Teaching a course year after year lessens the amount of preparation necessary. With the addition of computer programs such as PowerPoint, lectures can be written once and then be revisited again and again.

Some may need, and even thrive in, this pressure-cooker environment, as it motivates creativity and stimulates thought. But should those who are more inclined to ensuring quality research and publications be subjected to fulfilling quantitative benchmarks?

The hope is that in the future, the University will continue to offer stimulating classes taught by captivating professors; while vapid bluestockings and charlatans sell pencils from a cup, or recite Shakespeare, and preach that street theater is the last democratic form of art. But they can’t do both.

Jake Perron welcomes comments at [email protected]