Redefining the Teaching-Research Nexus Today

It is time to reaffirm the value of teaching and to find new ways to think about connections between teaching and research. While preparing for a roundtable at the 2015 MLA convention, I was momentarily surprised by its title, Teaching, Research, Service. More often, I have encountered the academic trinity in a different sequence: research, teaching, service. The leading place of teaching is often pushed aside by research, through competing claims on faculty time and resources, changing institutional structures, and shifting professional priorities. Even when teaching still appears first in the triad, as Leonard Cassuto notes in his contribution, “it does not rank first.” University teaching today seems to demand redefinition or rebranding.Defenders of the research-centered American university declare that teaching and research are closely linked, mutually reinforcing activities. As teachers, the claim runs, we excite our students because we are also creating and reinterpreting knowledge in our fields. Our research is strengthened by working with students at all levels who push us as scholars to reimagine our material. In America, this thinking goes at least as far back as the 1870s, when the president of Harvard, Charles W. Eliot, advocated teaching through research as part of a move away from what had been a recitation-based curriculum to an elective system. Teaching and research, in this view, are two sides of the same coin, part of a unified academic practice.For many research institutions, this view is enshrined in the equal weight given, at least in theory, to teaching and research in performance evaluations.1 As Cassuto notes, the place of service in the triad is fraught, often a handmaiden to the other two terms, though rhetorically lifted to their level. Institutional mission statements, annual reviews, and tenure evaluations assert the link between research and teaching. That link has strong intramural backing, too: many faculty members are deeply invested in this integrationist viewpoint and ideal.

What if teaching and research, for all this support, do not necessarily reinforce each other? The link between research and teaching may be important to the identity of many academics, but might it not perhaps be better described as a myth? Certainly in terms of faculty time and money, as well as of university structures, many colleagues see research and teaching as in conflict. Who has not heard the claim that research consumes an excessive role at the expense of teaching? “University research,” write critics, “detracts from the quality of teaching” (Pocklington and Tupper 7). This view presents teaching and research as competing functions within a zero-sum game of resources. Members of the public are not alone in claiming that research has taken on an excessive role at the expense of teaching. The sheer volume of such indictments of university research is vast, and their tone is insistent. Martin Anderson calls most academic research “inconsequential and trifling” in Impostors in the Temple (85); Page Smith denounces in Killing the Spirit the “full flight from teaching” for the sake of research (6), “the vast majority” of which “is essentially worthless” (7); and Charles J. Sykes in Profscam deplores the “new vogue of specialization” (17). Such criticisms of the academy and of professorial commitments are not anything new; as James Banner writes, “criticism of universities for neglecting teaching in deference to research is probably as old as the modern university itself” (98). Even Sykes traces the beginnings of specialization back to the 1930s (17). Ronald Barnett, one of the strongest critics of the teaching-research nexus, takes a different view. Instead of suggesting that these are complementary activities forced into competition with each other, he makes the bolder claim that teaching and research constitute rival ideologies. He argues that in the twentieth century teaching and research, once in “reasonably comfortable relationship with each other,” have become “mutually antagonistic” functions (Beyond All Reason 157). They are, in his view, inherently different activities, different skills, and different approaches to knowledge: teaching is integrative, private, personally constructed, and process-oriented, whereas research is specialized, public, and results-oriented.

There is mounting empirical evidence that teaching and research are at best only loosely coupled. Such studies consider teaching effectiveness (judged by student evaluations, limited though they are) in relation to research productivity (judged by publication counts, inexact as that metric may be). In a meta-analysis from the mid-1990s, John Hattie and Herbert Marsh found a near-zero statistical correlation between teaching effectiveness and research productivity. Some scholars thus suggest that the link between teaching and research is an “enduring myth” (de Weert 134) and have called for abandoning the integrationist research ideal (Dierkes and Merkens).

To say that teaching and research have been torn asunder presumes that there was a time when they were closely linked: if they are now being driven apart, when, if ever, were they integrated? Any standard history of the teaching-research nexus points us to Wilhelm von Humboldt, who proclaimed at the founding of the German research university in 1810 that teaching and research are a unity: “at the highest level, the teacher does not exist for the sake of the student: both teacher and student have their justification in the common pursuit of knowledge” (243). Humboldt is, however, but one part of the model of American universities. With the adoption of graduate programs in the late nineteenth century, American universities grafted the Humboldtian model onto a tradition of liberal education that did not at all see teaching and research as a unity. Cardinal John Henry Newman, in his Idea of a University (1858), argued, for example, that the aim of the university was “the diffusion and extension of knowledge rather than its advancement” (xxxvii). Research was left to the research societies, learned societies, and specialist academies outside the university, since “[t]o discover and teach are distinct functions; they are also distinct gifts, and are not commonly found united in the same person” (xl). Teaching, not research, was the mission of the university.

The most distinctive aspect of American universities today is without a doubt the commitment to the utility of knowledge creation. Clark Kerr, the influential president of the University of California in the 1960s, characterized the modern university as part of the “knowledge industry” (66). This is a departure from both Newman and Humboldt, who believed that knowledge should be cultivated at the university for its own sake and not for its uses. In The Uses of the University (2001), Kerr identified a significant shift in the conception of the university in the twentieth century, as universities came to be drivers of regional and national (knowledge) economies. Kerr saw the resulting research funding as fragmenting the university, weakening the humanities, creating a competition for research talent, and downgrading teaching, thus creating a race toward reduced teaching course loads as markers of selectivity and prestige. University prestige, after all, tends to favor research. “When universities raid one another’s faculties,” notes Barnett, “they do not do it because they seek cutting-edge classroom teachers” (Improving Higher Education 40).2

Debates over the teaching-research nexus reveal the tensions that lie at the core of our institutions. Our universities are built not on a single foundation but on distinct philosophies of education that stand in uneasy relation to one another. American higher education rests on an integrationist view of the teaching-research nexus, but it also embodies a teaching-centric dedication to liberal education, a commitment to research as practical knowledge production, and a growing allegiance to the use-value of universities that drives research links to industry and economic development. These elements are implicitly, if not explicitly, at odds.


If these competing conceptions and allegiances of the university have not always been apparent, I believe there are (at least) three pressures that are visibly redefining the teaching-research nexus today.

First, the changing value of education: the focus on the value of education is increasingly seen in financial terms, as return on investment. This emphasis gives impetus to the criticism of faculty research as a freestanding and self-indulgent claimant on faculty time and resources. Kerr noted the shift to the use-value of the university as a concerted part of collective economic development. Today’s emphasis on use-value calls attention to the career placement of graduates, the size of their student debt, and the return on investment that their degrees offer them. The stress on the pecuniary value of higher education puts particular pressure on graduate education, where the focus on research training continues. This is especially the case in the sciences, where student stipends, faculty salaries, and research costs are often only partly supported by universities themselves and thus require an influx of external research money. The effect of this changing value of education is to push research and teaching further asunder.

Second, the unbundling3 or fragmentation of the roles of teaching and research in the university: “Teaching, research and service specialists are emerging,” write Schuster and Finkelstein write in their study The American Faculty (232). The role of the scholar-teacher, or even “teacher-scholar,” is increasingly hard to maintain (Cassuto). In the university, we are developing teaching-only positions (particularly in the growing adjunct teaching pool) and, largely in the sciences, research-only positions. With the career administrator, we are forging service-only positions. Tightening of research monies and of the academic job market are reinforcing a pernicious stratification in which tenured and tenure-track professors are increasingly separated from a contingent workforce.4

Third, the professionalization of teaching and the movement of assessment are transforming how we approach teaching. I hear a lot from colleagues that we should shift the balance back to teaching by strengthening incentives for good teaching. Yet our professional identity is often understood as a function of our research identity, starting with the completion of a dissertation. Teaching experience and pedagogical training have often been ancillary. Indeed, teaching has often been assumed to be a function of research skill. Only recently has teaching at the higher education level become professionalized, with teaching certification and training, as well as with teaching and learning centers. Part of this shift has meant that more refined assessment models of learning outcomes are becoming widespread—at times against faculty opposition. While the focus on teaching and learning outcomes is invaluable, it has had a counterintuitive effect: the establishment of teaching-specific training and performance markers in effect disarticulates teaching from research. It suggests that research and teaching are different academic functions, with different preparation and different skill sets.

But there is a possible solution embedded in the way we have begun to talk about teaching. In the past three decades, we have moved from talking about teaching to talking about learning. In other words, we have shifted from teacher-centered teaching to student-centered learning models, in what some have termed the “age of the learner” (Sorcinelli, Austin, and Eddy 1). This shift opens an opportunity to redraw the boundaries between teaching and research. Student-centered learning is inquiry-based and problem-based: it combines research-based learning and research-based teaching. The shift from teaching to learning gives us the opportunity to be process- rather than results-driven, to redefine teaching and, in consequence, also research.


The shift from teaching to learning gives us an opportunity to redraw the fault lines of the teaching-research nexus. Here are some recommendations:

Let us redefine teaching. The redefinition of teaching has already started in recent years; it includes a wider spectrum of activities, including engaged learning or teaching with work-based components. The focus on student-centered, inquiry-based, and problem-based learning highlights the process of inquiry rather than the accumulation of knowledge. My first recommendation is to make at least parts of teacher training more disciplinarily specific, to bring some of it back from teaching and learning centers and integrate it into our graduate program curricula (as it still is in some language departments).

Let us redefine research: If we need to redefine teaching, we also need to redefine research. We need to look beyond publications as the marker of research performance. There is a fair amount of talk about expanding the kinds of research we accept, but focusing on publications—of any sort—reinforces an older sage-on-the-stage conception of teaching as research or knowledge delivery. David Shumway, in his contribution to this forum, traces by contrast the longer lineage of “[r]esearch as process,” in which faculty members “were assumed to be engaged in the process of research even if they were not publishing.” The National Science Foundation (NSF) made the integration of research and education a priority in its 2001–06 strategic plan (NSF GPRA Strategic Plan 1): its funding guidelines now include, for example, sections on the contributions of research to teaching and other human resources. Many humanities fellowships, by contrast, still ask applicants to show their project’s “original and significant contribution to knowledge,” with little explicit mention of the impact on teaching, curriculum, mentorship, or other forms of engagement (see, e.g., “ACLS American Council of Learned Societies Fellowships”). The new NEH Public Scholar fellowships, which support scholarship in the humanities for a general audience, and the NEH Next Generation Humanities PhD grants, which promote the integration of the humanities in the public sphere, are a step in the right direction.

My second suggestion, then, is to ask in statements of research, whether in grants or annual reviews, not just for evidence of the projected scholarly impact of research publications but for their probable curricular effects. Ernest Boyer, in his influential 1990 report for the Carnegie Foundation, put forward an expanded concept of scholarship, suggesting we move to different categories altogether, by dividing academic work into discovery (this being roughly congruent to what is often—and narrowly—called research), and also integration, application, and teaching (16). In 2000 the Kellogg Commission similarly argued that we should shift from research, teaching, and service to “learning, discovery and engagement.” These models sought to move beyond teaching versus research, and the divide between theory and praxis, to rethink priorities in higher education. A number of universities have incorporated aspects of Boyer’s model of scholarship in tenure and promotion structures; such changes may be effecting modest change in the status quo of the publish-or-perish model. Recently Drew Moser, Todd Ream, and John Braxton, in an expanded, twenty-fifth anniversary edition of Boyer’s Scholarship Reconsidered, made the case that Boyer’s ideas may prove to be “more relevant” in the next quarter-century than even in his day (xviii). Indeed, the continued advances in the scholarship of teaching and the upsurge of interest in the scholarship of engagement echo aspects of Boyer’s redefinition of scholarship: what unites these two ways of framing scholarship is a focus on inquiry-based and problem-based learning.

When we still speak of “teaching loads” and “research opportunities”—as when we prepare what are often separate teaching philosophies and research statements—we continue to reinforce a divide. While we are unlikely to leave the research ideal soon, redefining both research and teaching as parts of a shared process of learning may go some way toward setting them into a new relation.


  1. I should acknowledge the wide range of collegiate and university institutions in the United States, each of which emphasizes elements of the academic trinity differently.
  2. What still held the university, or “multiversity” as Kerr called it, together? He said, jokingly, “a common grievance over parking” (15).
  3. Sean Gehrke and Adrianna Kezar describe this phenomenon of the separation of duties once performed by one faculty member as “unbundling.”
  4. Michael Bérubé and Jennifer Ruth, in The Humanities, Higher Education, and Academic Freedom, argue in favor of a two-tier faculty with distinct research and teaching tracks (19–26).

Works Cited

“ACLS American Council of Learned Societies Fellowships.” American Council of Learned Societies Fellowships, Accessed 14 Jan. 2015.

Anderson, Martin. Impostors in the Temple. Simon & Schuster, 1992.

Banner, James M. Being a Historian: An Introduction to the Professional World of History. Cambridge UP, 2012.

Barnett, Ronald. Beyond All Reason: Living with Ideology in the University. Open UP, 2003.

―――. Improving Higher Education: Total Quality Care. Society for Research into Higher Education / Open UP, 1992.

Bérubé, Michael, and Jennifer Ruth. The Humanities, Higher Education, and Academic Freedom: Three Necessary Arguments. Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.

Boyer, Ernest L. Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate. Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, 1990.

Cassuto, Leonard. “Teach While You’re at It.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 5 Jan. 2015, Accessed 14 Jan. 2015.

de Weert, Egbert. “The Organised Contradistinctions of Teaching and Research: Reshaping the Academic Profession.” The Changing Face of Academic Life. Palgrave Macmillan, 2009, pp. 134–54.

Dierkes, Meinolf, and Hans Merkens. Zur Wettbewerbsfähigkeit des Hochschulsystems in Deutschland. Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin für Sozialforschung, 2002.

Gehrke, Sean, and Adrianna Kezar. “Unbundling the Faculty Role in Higher Education: Utilizing Historical, Theoretical, and Empirical Frameworks to Inform Future Research.” Higher Education: Handbook of Theory and Research, edited by Michael B. Paulsen, vol. 30, Springer Intl., 2015, pp. 93–150. CrossRef, Accessed 15 Feb. 2016.

Hattie, John, and Herbert W. Marsh. “The Relationship between Research and Teaching: A Meta-Analysis.” Review of Educational Research, vol. 66, no. 4, 1996, pp. 507–42.

Humboldt, Wilhelm von. “On the Spirit and Organizational Framework of Intellectual Institutions in Berlin.” Translated by Edward Shils. Minerva, vol. 8, no. 2, 1970, pp. 243–50.

Kellogg Commission. “Renewing the Covenant: Learning, Discovery, and Engagement in a New Age and Different World.” Mar. 2000.

Kerr, Clark. The Uses of the University. Harvard UP, 2001.

Moser, Drew, Todd C. Ream, and John M. Braxton. “A Note to the Reader.” Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate, by Ernest L. Boyer, John Wiley & Sons, 2015, pp. xvii–xx.

Newman, John Henry. The Idea of a University. 1858. Edited by Martin J. Svaglic, U of Notre Dame P, 1982.

NSF GPRA Strategic Plan FY 2001–2006. National Science Foundation, Accessed 15 June 2015.

Pocklington, Thomas C., and Allan Tupper. No Place to Learn: Why Universities Aren’t Working. U of British Columbia P, 2011.

Schuster, Jack H., and Martin J. Finkelstein. The American Faculty: The Restructuring of Academic Work and Careers. The Johns Hopkins UP, 2006.

Smith, Page. Killing the Spirit: Higher Education in America. Viking, 1990.

Sorcinelli, Mary Deane, Ann E. Austin, and Pamela L. Eddy. Creating the Future of Faculty Development: Learning from the Past, Understanding the Present. Anker Publishing, 2006.

Sykes, Charles J. Profscam: Professors and the Demise of Higher Education. Regnery, 1988.

Vanessa L. Ryan is associate dean of student development in the Graduate School at Brown University. A version of this essay was presented at the 2015 MLA convention in Vancouver.


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