Monday, June 20, 2011

Jeffrey Simpson, do your research

Good news, everyone! Jeffrey Simpson has solved all that ails the university sector in Ontario: it turns out that those lazy professors need to stop doing their airy-fairy research and get their butts in front of the classroom.  Oh, and we also need heavy-handed government intervention to make this happen.

Simpson's column betrays an almost complete lack of understanding of the modern university, not to mention the role and importance of research.  I would invite Simpson to check the research page of any university in Ontario, listing high-profile and news-making results (e.g., U of T, York). Perhaps in his next column, Simpson can let us know which of these results he would trade against smaller class sizes for undergraduates, from the innovative and censorship-fighting Citizen Lab to the breakthroughs of the University Health Network to environment-saving advances in clean energy.  Or perhaps he can let us know which of the many innovative spin-off companies arising from university research Ontario can do without (at U of W alone, valued at nearly $1 billion annually in a 2001 report).

Simpson also fails to understand that there is no tension between research and teaching. Indeed, at the graduate level, research is teaching: graduate students learn the difficult process of developing new knowledge through research, under the close guidance of a supervising professor.  From personal experience, I can say that graduate supervision is a rewarding but time-consuming process; one that Simpson completely ignores.

I could go on, but I've got a lot of research work to do this afternoon! I'm working on an innovative communication technique for nanorobots that may one day revolutionize drug delivery and make invasive surgery obsolete -- take that, taxpayers! Meanwhile, before writing his next column, I suggest Simpson do a bit of the research he hates so much and acquaint himself with what universities actually do in 2011.


Anonymous said...

It really depends on what one sees a university as.. to educate under-graduates or graduates. He has a point, in the sense that under-graduates have lesser "priority" over graduates, and the situation is becoming worse. One solution to this problem, could be that the university could hire both "teaching professors/lecturers" and "research professors".

Andrew said...

That is a good point, but it is not the point that Simpson is making. He views university as an undergraduate factory, and research as a waste.

Yet even if we accept his view, his idea of undergraduate teaching is simplistic. He thinks that merely sticking more professors in front of classes will lead to improved outcomes. But unlike high school teachers, professors are not specifically trained to teach; further, there are problems in modern undergraduate pedagogy (like student preparation and the role of digital technology) that go far beyond class size. But that's a whole other blog post.