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The schizophrenic life of an academic

Today’s Wall Street Journal had a fascinating article about the heated competition to become America’s Top College Professor.  Aside from being personally inspiring (as someone who spent a lot of years trying to figure out the right classroom style), the story also points to the fundamental schizophrenia behind the conventional University (and by extension, business school) career track.  Good teaching obviously matters to students—it can make the difference in what a student chooses to pursue in life, and can just as easily shut a particular subject or interest down.  But, does good teaching matter to universities? 

They all say that it does.  But one could make the argument that teaching suffers when schools prioritize something else—their status and reputations—over what goes on in their classrooms.  Indeed, as M. Harmon suggested in a wonderful article (Harmon, M. M. 2006. Business research and Chinese patriotic poetry: How competition for status distorts the priority between research and teaching in U. S. business schools. Academy of Management Learning and Education, 5(2): 234-243), schools’ ‘quest for status’ can consume resources and take time that obviously is then not available for teaching.  The quest for status is reflected in an academic reward and prestige system that is heavily tilted toward scholarly publication over other forms of impact.  Indeed, as the WSJ article points out, it is a system that resulted in more than 100 academic books being published on Shakespeare alone! 

I’m a big believer in the power and importance of research—indeed, other than those of us whose jobs are blessedly focused on research, who has time to think these days?  However, a reward system designed to produce high volumes of publications is apt to do just that, even if teaching gets a lower priority. 

It’s therefore doubly refreshing to hear from those who have somehow managed the academic walk-the-plank:  high quality publications and award-winning teaching.  These top teachers deserve our considerable admiration. 

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