Duke University Alumni Magazine

Striking A Delicate Balance
Teaching and Research
by Robert J. Bliwise

Photo: Les Todd

Can a university expect its faculty members to be pioneering in their scholarship and dynamic in their instruction?

ith considerable fanfare on campus and considerable coverage in the national media, Duke this fall announced a $10-million donation from Fort Worth philanthropists Robert M. and Anne Thaxton Bass. Most of the funds will go toward at least twenty "rotating chairs": Faculty members recognized for excellence in teaching and research alike will hold the chairs for five-year periods. Forming a group called the Bass Society of Fellows, they'll meet regularly to discuss undergraduate education in the context of the research university.

     This is, then, more than a gift; it's "a strong statement about what the university values in our faculty members," says Duke president Nannerl O. Keohane. And so the Bass chairs are meant to address a persistent question--a question reflected in public complaints over high tuition charges, and in national cynicism about how effectively institutions work: Can a research university value undergraduate teaching?

     In The Research University in a Time of Discontent, a 1993 collection of essays published by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Frank Rhodes, then president of Cornell, argues that "it is undergraduate teaching, and learning, that is the central task" of the research university. "Undergraduate education is fundamental to the existence of the university: It occupies more time, involves more people, consumes more resources, requires more facilities, and generates more revenue than any other activity."

     Keohane, in the same volume, notes that research has long had "an undisputed primacy in the self-definition of the university." She writes that "The oft-noted fact that we think in terms of 'teaching loads' and 'research opportunities' is faithfully reflected in the academic reward system, by which professors are lured to new institutions with promises of decreased exposure to undergraduates." But Keohane--a political scientist who won Stanford's superior-teaching award in her last full-time faculty role--tried to strike the balance in her October annual report to the Duke faculty. "At certain points, for many professors, a research project entails an intensity and immediacy that makes it dominant over everything else in life," she told the faculty. "At other times, with a new course or a particularly exciting group of students in a seminar on a topic one feels passionate about, teaching provides the same kind of total immersion and reward. But the sense of scholarly excitement is the same in both instances, and the fruits of one kind of passionate involvement fulfill and deepen the other."

     Keohane went on to argue that a research university offers "multiple ways in which teaching and research enrich one another through a scholarly career"--and to point out that creating the right institutional dynamic requires not just rhetoric, but resources. Wars, hot and cold, have sparked government funding of the research enterprise--and so have reshaped the American university. Research, which in war-time had been linked with national necessity, came to be bound up with national prestige. Likewise for American higher education, research came to be bound up with academic prestige: One measure of Duke's standing is that in the most recent year for which data are available, 1994-95, the university brought in more than $203 million in sponsored research funds; almost $150 million of that figure came from federal sources.

     Duke economist and public policy professor Charles Clotfelter '69 documents the ties between research and reputation in his book Buying the Best. Looking at why expenditures in higher education have risen markedly, he finds the explanation in "unbounded aspirations." The university "lacks any corporate goal other than the pursuit of excellence," he writes. "When it comes to the research that it undertakes, the university has little to guide it other than an uncompromising devotion to the highest standards of inquiry." The institutional imperative for excellence might apply to activities other than research--but if so, "certainly to a lesser extent."

     With remarkable vigor, universities throughout the Eighties emphasized research at the expense of teaching, according to Clotfelter. And there's seemingly little impetus to change, since large numbers of prospective students continue to clamor for admission--tuition complaints and population shifts notwithstanding. So research-minded faculty nationally have cut back on their student advising, office hours, and teaching loads. (Teaching embraces more than classroom contact: The "unseen acts" of teaching are tough to document, he says. "For every hour spent in classroom teaching, additional time is required to organize course materials, prepare for class, meet with students, read and grade student assignments, and write student recommendations.")

     If those trends were driven by ambitiousness, they were reinforced by the supply-and-demand realities of the academic labor market: "The best professors were finding at other places that they could get more time to do research, so that's what they demanded when they negotiated. So along with salaries and expectations about computer support, they also had expectations about reduced teaching loads."

     With a chronic oversupply of Ph.D.s and tighter times in today's academy, though, it may be less of a seller's market, even for academic stars. "We went through a period where a lot of faculty, particularly senior faculty, would transfer into institutions with an agreement that their teaching load would be significantly lower than the average," says John Strohbehn, Duke's provost. "Duke will not do that. But I think it's also true that most other institutions will not make those kinds of deals anymore. That doesn't mean that you might not bring in somebody and give him or her a decreased load for a year or two. But they must understand at Duke that all faculty are expected to teach, and that we can't make long-term promises about their teaching load."

     And shifts in government priorities mean that the times are not especially research-friendly: According to an analysis released in October by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, financing for non-military research and development will drop in constant dollars by up to 23 percent by the year 2002. At a news conference unveiling the findings, Richard Smalley of Rice University, co-winner of this year's Nobel Prize in chemistry, lamented the harmful repercussions of an "invidious" undermining of basic research.

     Strohbehn laments a poor public understanding of the trade-off between research and teaching. Duke's continuing sensitivity to the issue of how to achieve the delicate balance is suggested by a new committee that he's setting up, he says. The committee may recommend changes in the tenure system--which is periodically faulted for an insufficient emphasis on teaching accomplishment. And the Bass initiative should reward professors accomplished in both spheres even as it signals other faculty members, and the public, about Duke's expectations. Most of the professorships will be awarded to current Duke faculty members at the associate rank or to newly minted full professors--faculty members who are tenured but who are, at a relatively early stage in their careers, on "a really strong trajectory."

     That trajectory should drive home the message that the activities of teaching and research "are not really in competition with each other but reinforce each other," Strohbehn says. "And being able to have examples of individuals who have done both really well is going to be helpful for the broader discussion."

     In Clotfelter's view, the broader discussion has to acknowledge some inherent tension between research and teaching. "It is the oft-repeated mantra of deans and provosts in research universities that good research makes for good teaching, or, in the words of economics, that the two activities are complementary. The professor who has an active research program, it is argued, can offer students fresh insights and the sense of active inquiry," he writes in Buying the Best. But the complementarities between undergraduate teaching and research can only go so far. "Once they are exhausted, a trade-off between these two activities must be made: At some point, it becomes possible to increase one only at the expense of the other."

     Political science professor and chair Peter Lange, who as vice provost helped to frame the Bass proposal, says "if you're not intersecting your teaching with your research, there is a much higher probability that over time your teaching will decay." He talks about arranging a tutorial for four undergraduates who had taken his European Union course--a tutorial that resulted in their organizing a conference. "My research opportunities were enriched by virtue of coming into contact with people at the conference. And the experience made a huge difference in terms of deepening the interest of these students." Three of the four went on to graduate study in international relations.

     Using such models, Lange would like Duke to take better advantage of its strengths in educating undergraduates. The issue, in his view, "is not to make Duke into an Amherst, but to take full advantage of our identity as a research university." Professors should encourage more students to latch on to a professorial research program, he says, to work on some sustained writing project, to enroll in capstone courses in their majors, or to incorporate their study-abroad experiences into their course work. "There are huge advantages for students in being at a research university. The question is, how do we get those advantages built into our teaching program without damaging our ability to conduct research?"

     "Obviously, the issue any faculty member has to deal with is that you're being asked to do an awful lot," says Provost Strohbehn. "You're being asked to produce really excellent research, and you're also expected to do a really good job on the educational side. So there's a tension between those two activities just from a time-allocation perspective. But what we see is that the very good faculty who are making absolutely stellar contributions in research are also very often the ones who are doing the stellar job in the classroom. You have to make sure that you don't require so much teaching that the faculty can't make this kind of a trade-off."

     Before the Bass initiative, Duke's most vigorous effort to address that trade-off was setting up its Center for Teaching and Learning. Albert Eldridge, an associate professor of political science, was tapped as its first director in the spring of 1993. (Eldridge won Trinity College's 1993 Howard Johnson Award for distinguished teaching.) Duke was arriving late in the game: There were some 300 such centers across the country, most set up at state-related universities--under tax-payer pressure to be sensitive to teaching--and others at liberal arts colleges. Research universities were "the last bastions" of resistance, as he puts it.

     "There was not the notion here that one needed to grow as a teacher in the same way that one grows as a scholar. Teaching, like scholarship, needs to be constantly rejuvenated, needs to be constantly supported and reinforced," says Eldridge. But many junior faculty members, recently tenured faculty members, and graduate teaching assistants--the groups forming the largest client base for the center--"don't believe that there is a general culture of support for teaching at Duke," he says. "It is a sense that teaching is supported verbally, but that there really is not across-the-board support.

     "We get faculty here who say, I would like to spend more time on my teaching, I would like to explore new uses of instructional tech- nology, I would like to redesign my class, I would like to do all of these things. But the rewards system is such that I don't think I'm going to be rewarded for this. And it might actually be detrimental to my professional growth within my department and my discipline because of the time it will take away from my scholarship."

     As one symptom of the need for cultural change, Eldridge points to the process for soliciting teaching-award nominations. Trin-ity College of Arts and Sciences gives a total of seven teaching awards. Earlier this academic year, the Center for Teaching and Learning sent a request for nominations, and then sent a follow-up letter, to all departments and programs. The two letters drew about twenty nominations. A third letter sought detailed information, including a statement from the department chair about the particular nominee's strengths as a teacher. The letter asked for a similar statement from the nominee, along with course syllabi, videotapes from classes, or other evidence of superior teaching. Three of the nominees then pulled out of the competition.

     "Some departments really do take this to heart, and they nominate their best young faculty and give us outstanding portfolios to demonstrate the excellence of their faculty," says Eldridge. But other areas are slow to recognize teaching excellence--maybe because of the view, as he recalls one professor stating it, that "to be nominated for a teaching award before tenure is like the kiss of death."

     In his recently published history, The Launching of Duke University, historian Robert Durden points out that the issue of how best to strike the balance between teaching and research has long occupied Duke particularly, and American higher education broadly. What Durden calls "the nation's first authentic university," Johns Hopkins, opened in 1876. Just as the German university--with graduate education and research at its core--shaped the Johns Hopkins experiment, the model in Maryland exerted a transforming influence on American higher education. State-supported universities in the Midwest and Far West, including Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and California, followed the model; so did several universities in the Northeast--Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Pennsylvania, and Columbia. Stanford and Chicago organized themselves some fifteen years after the launch of Hopkins.

     Those late-nineteenth-century transformations virtually bypassed the South, according to Durden. In the wake of the Civil War, the region was gripped by poverty; it was devoid of the wealthy alumni, philanthropists, and money-suffused state governments that gave rise to the research university elsewhere. When Trinity College moved to Durham in 1892, "it was a far cry indeed from a research university," Durden writes. Still, the move gave Trinity President John Franklin Crowell a chance to build a research-trained faculty.

     With the 1919-20 academic year, Trinity appointed its first Faculty Committee on Research. The committee asserted the positive influence of original investigation on the quality of teaching, along with the "vital need of creating new research centers in the United States, especially in the South." It made numerous recommendations, all of which were implemented in some form. Among them: reducing the maximum teaching load to twelve hours per week, a sabbatical-leave plan after six years' service, approval of traveling expenses to attend professional meetings, and yearly fellowships of $500 each for a senior faculty member and either a young faculty member or an exceptional graduate student.

     One of Duke's periodic long-range plans dates to 1960 and places in stark terms the dilemma--still very much alive--of ineffective teaching evaluations: "Qualities of competence and effectiveness in teaching submit to no ready formula." Asked if there are ways out of that dilemma today, economist Clotfelter says, "The answer is there may be, but we haven't discovered them. In this institution, which is sort of the temple of rationality, we are not very advanced in our ability to measure what we would call the product."

     But other campuses are more advanced, says the Teaching-Learning Center's Eldridge. "Any teacher-course evaluation that contains the question 'In a single word, how would you describe this course?' is inadequate. Is it any wonder that we get comical responses? That's not an effective way to measure teaching. Teaching is assessed as part of promotion or tenure, but the method of assessment is simply to review the teacher-course evaluations. If your judgment about teaching is based on a flawed instrument, it's easy to dismiss the relative importance of teaching."

     Beyond strengthening their procedures for surveying students, other universities are adopting some version of peer review for teaching, Eldridge says. Colleagues from the home department or some other department will come into the classroom, observe the class, and provide an assessment based on specific criteria.

     Universities are also drawn increasingly to the idea of the teaching portfolio. Traditionally, professors represent themselves largely as scholars. "We provide copies of our books and articles to demonstrate our competence, we provide counts from professional indices about how many times our work has been cited, we provide commentary by colleagues who evaluate and critique our books. We don't ask faculty to think about their teaching in the same way that they think about their research." That is starting to change: Faculty members in the Arts and Sciences, for example, as they come up for reappointment, tenure, or promotion, now have to produce a teaching-oriented statement.

     If there is to be a wider cultural change at the research university, it may have to come from its scholars-in-training--and from the university's dealings with those scholars-in-training. Writing in The Research University in a Time of Discontent, Columbia University Provost Jonathan R. Cole argues that research universities "have failed miserably" in teaching graduate students about the art of teaching. As he puts it in his essay, "The quality of teaching that exists is a function of individual endowments and effort, largely made in isolation, and there is little being done to help young scholars become better teachers--and to have them consider new, nontraditional modes of acquiring and transmitting knowledge. We would never contemplate a similar approach to the research training of graduate students."

     Too often, Eldridge says, graduate students find their departments make only "limited and spotty" attempts to address their needs as teachers. "Their perception is that not only does the culture not support teaching, but that the culture is actually hostile to preparing them as teachers. When they have told their dissertation advisers, for example, that they were more interested in teaching, there were attempts to dissuade them from that perspective." In one discussion with Eldridge, graduate students concluded that their easiest option was to parallel the military's approach to homosexual conduct: Don't ask, don't tell. "Don't ask about teaching, and don't tell that you're primarily interested in teaching."

     That's the bad news. The good news is that graduate students have provided, in Eldridge's view, the greatest success for the center. He's seen "a real hunger" on their part to learn about teaching--and also a real need. In an academic job market that increasingly is "skewed more toward teaching than it is toward research," graduate students see teaching credentials as contributing to their ability to get a job.

     Each year the center works with the departments to select six graduate students who have shown a strong aptitude for teaching. They come together to talk about teaching issues, and then set up activities within their home departments to improve teaching-assistant training. Eldridge would like to build on those efforts and have Duke create a certifi-cation program in post-secondary teaching. "We would have the immediate benefit here of better teaching assistants in the classroom, which would meet a lot of the criticisms that we have from parents and students. And we would be inculcating graduate students into a different culture, a culture that recognizes the importance of teaching."

     Eldridge says that if Duke is interested in reinvigorating its teaching mission, it should consider the idea of the Carnegie Endowment's Ernest Boyer that universities should define scholarship anew. "Part of scholar- ship is the dissemination of information," says Eldridge. "We disseminate that information through our disciplines and our professional journals and our meetings. But we also disseminate it in the classroom. So, since we're a research university, our teaching should in some way play to our research strengths." That may mean using information technology in the classroom, taking on student assistants in the laboratory, or leading discussions on timely issues for student groups--all methods of forging a community of scholars, and all demanding time investments.

     Forging a community of scholars hinges on active learning, where "students are buying into the learning process in some way, either by active discussion or role-playing or simulation or hands-on experience in a laboratory or some kind of experiential learning." The corollary is that teaching should use a wide variety of pedagogical devices, Eldridge says. "We know that students learn at different rates. We also know that students respond to different types of pedagogy." So in a class that only uses the traditional lecture, not every student is going to learn effectively.

     One striking example of Eldridge's principles at work is Duke's new introductory biology course, largely invented--and taught by--Steve Nowicki. Nowicki, associate professor of zoology and recipient of the 1993 Robert B. Cox Award for distinguished teaching in Trinity College, says his life was changed when, as an undergraduate fulfilling a distribution requirement, he sampled introductory biology; later, as a graduate student, he taught a similar course.

     When he came to Duke seven years ago, he heard complaints from his advanced students that their peers weren't being pulled into biology in the right way. "That bothered me. And so I thought, well, somebody should do something about that." The Nowicki plan, shaped with the help of colleagues and graduate students, was to embed a small seminar within the large course. The course has a somewhat shorter-than-normal laboratory; the extra time is carved out for what Nowicki--who began college as a music major--calls a "counterpoint" to his lectures. "What I do in lectures is tell the story, and each lecture is its own chapter. What we want to do in the seminars is to have another perspective, an alternative story --another melody that is moving alongside that and complementing the big melody." So after Nowicki lectured about organisms in biology, students in their seminars were assigned a particular organism, then told to find out what they could about it, develop a hypothesis around it, and figure out how to test that hypothesis. The idea, says Nowicki, is to impress on students what it means to ask questions in a biological context.

     Nowicki is working with some twenty "mentors," almost all of them graduate students. The lecture enrolls 260 students; the seminars are limited to twelve. Working with the Center for Teaching and Learning, he developed a training program on general issues in teaching and specific issues linked with the course. "It can be a good course because of what I do, but it will only be a great course because of what they do," he says.

     Nowicki says that "Although I didn't realize how hard this would be, I knew I would do nothing else this semester. And so I had to make the conscious decision to clear the deck." To devote himself to the biology course, he postponed his involvement on a National Institute of Mental Health grant review board and turned down professional seminar invitations. During the previous summer, he gave himself a running start on some long-term projects. "In between times of preparing for the course, I did a hell of a lot of research."

     "There is a practical issue in terms of the amount of time that one has to devote to different things, and research and teaching might be juxtaposed in that regard," he says. "But not all good teaching has to be this total immersion. This is a pretty extreme case. I remember the first time I taught my neuro-biology course. I worked pretty darn hard then, but at the same time I was setting up a new lab, I was writing a grant, I was getting a lot of research done, and I was publishing papers. I had to ratchet up my energy output, but I was able to find the balance."

     Part of the reason he was willing to engage so wholeheartedly in re-inventing the course was his perception of an intellectual challenge in the task. "I think it's bad that we think of science as being so product-driven: How many papers did you publish? How many grants did you put out? I went to graduate school, I became a scientist, because I like to think about problems and I like to solve problems. And to me, teaching this course is an intellectual problem: What is the story of biology that you can tell in a semester?

     "In a sense, the payoff I'll get, if I can get that story put together, is a much better view of biology. I think that will make me a much better researcher. People tell me that they couldn't possibly teach introductory biology. And I tell them, well, then, how could you possibly do interesting research? There are people doing science who just aren't thinking very big."

     Beyond serving as a lesson in the delicate balance between research and teaching, Nowicki's experience suggests that the electronic classroom--while it may enrich the learning experience--will place new demands on professors. The introductory biology course has a site on the World Wide Web. But the site isn't multi-layered. Nowicki would like to have electronic "links" with every lecture. So if students get excited by ecology, they could read his lecture notes on the Web, explore a link to Duke researchers working in ecology, and find additional links on how to get involved in the research. The technology, then, could provide a "gateway" to biology as a discipline and in its Duke context. But putting the technology in place--and maintaining the site--requires a knowledge base and resources that Nowicki is just beginning to develop.

     For higher education, technology may force some revision of the equation between research and reputation. Last year, Duke's Fuqua School of Business launched its Global Executive M.B.A. program, a nineteen-month degree program that is rooted in information technology. Residential classes convene at sites in Europe, Asia, and the United States; professors deliver the balance of the instruction using interactive software applications. According to the program description: "These communications tools allow faculty and students to hold extended dialogues without the normal constraints of classroom and office hours. From their home bases in Shanghai, Munich, Sao Paulo, or New York, GEMBA students are able to interact with faculty and classmates in real time, bringing up-to-the-minute information and unique regional perspectives to any group assignment or class discussion."

     Fuqua officials are quick to highlight this remarkable experiment--teaching extended globally through information technology--as a point of distinction. So will the elite university of the future be pioneering not just in its research agenda, but in its teaching techniques as well?

     From his perspective at the Center for Teaching and Learning, Eldridge observes that "the climate of support for higher education has changed in this country. It's much more critical, less willing to accept the notion without critical review that we're doing a good job."

     Duke enjoys "a long tradition of interest in and support for teaching," Eldridge says. "But that idea can't become static. The concern for teaching has to be as dynamic as our concern for research and scholarship. And it's got to be more than episodic, more than just periodically parading the latest winners of the teaching awards. We've got to be able to demonstrate a sustained commitment."                        

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