Saturday, September 5, 2015

Are good scholars more likely to be good teachers?

What should we make of a recent study, The Teaching/Research Trade-Off in Law: Data From the Right Tail (January 2015), that finds that, at the University of Chicago Law School, faculty members' teaching evaluations rise in correlation with how much they publish (69)?

The study's authors, Tom Ginsburg and Thomas J. Miles, both members of the Chicago law faculty, are open-minded and careful in their reading of their data, and readily acknowledge that the University of Chicago might be atypical. (78) They report that many studies of the impact of scholarship on teaching in academia have concluded that these two have little or no relationship to each other. (52) Meanwhile, Chicago's faculty members are so productive as scholars that the entire environment at Chicago may be unique. The average number of publications per year for each faculty member is 4.63; the median is 3 (56-57) -- and that's a lot of publishing. Perhaps Chicago's students are so accustomed to having ardent scholars as teachers, and so convinced themselves of the value of scholarship, that they are a specially welcoming audience for this group of professors -- a possibility the authors note. (72) Perhaps Chicago's scholars are unusually good teachers as well, another possibility the authors allude to (but don't assert is correct). (57-58)

But suppose what is true at Chicago is true more generally. What would that tell us?

First, it would be clear that being a productive scholar does not prevent someone from being a strong teacher as well. We don't know if this is in fact generally the case, but if it is, that's important. 

Second, it would remain likely, nonetheless, that time matters. The Chicago faculty in this survey don't seem to teach very much; on average, the study looked at the work of each professor over about 5 years, and during that time "[t]he average professor taught an average of 10 courses and the median professor taught 9." (53) That appears to mean that the typical Chicago professor teaches two courses a year, a number that I think faculty at many other schools would envy. (The authors note that "[a]ll of the regressions in [one aspect of their study] suggest that teaching multiple courses in a single term may reduce the quality of teaching." (74)) Moreover, Chicago faculty in general have limited administrative responsibilities. (56) They have a lot of time to perfect their scholarship and their teaching. Less time, one suspects, leads to less perfection -- though it seems from the data that Chicago's faculty/administrators sacrifice scholarly productivity (63) but not teaching quality (73). 

Third, it would remain quite unclear whether scholarship promotes teaching. I find the idea that writing about issues promotes understanding and that this understanding promotes exposition in class intuitively appealing. But it may not be correct and of course the correlations the study authors have found do not directly prove causation.

Perhaps there is some other factor which makes people both productive scholars and effective teachers. Once this idea is stated, it strikes me as having intuitive appeal too. Maybe Chicago's faculty have a combination of intelligence, demonstrativeness (to catch students' and readers' interest) and focused energy. Traits like these would make these people good at a range of occupations; two of them would be teaching and scholarship, but that might not be because teaching and scholarship actually build on each other, or (more to the point) build on each other in some specially powerful way.

Fourth, the study does not tell us anything about the relationship between scholarship and clinical teaching. The Chicago clinicians weren't included in the study at all; the authors explain that this is because clinical "courses differ from traditional academic teaching, and clinical faculty often do not publish scholarly articles." (78 n.1) I'm not familiar with Chicago's clinical faculty rules, but it may be that clinicians there are not expected to be scholars as well as teachers and case supervisors. 

Suppose it turns out that Chicago's clinicians are also very effective teachers, but that their effectiveness doesn't correlate at all with scholarship. That might offer more reason to believe that the true reason for faculty members' teaching effectiveness is, as I suggested earlier, that they have a special combination of intelligence, demonstrativeness and focused energy. The clinicians may build their teaching effectiveness through their simultaneous engagement in the cases their students are handling under the clinicians' supervision; that practice engagement may have the same synergistic impact on teaching as scholarship may for their classroom colleagues.

Fifth, we would not know whether the courses the Chicago faculty in the study are teaching are the best ones for the students to be taking. So, as the authors also acknowledge (48), what the study tells us is that Chicago's non-experiential courses are well taught by its scholarly faculty, not that "law schools are teaching the right things that students need to practice." We wouldn't know, in particular, that the balance of doctrinal and experiential, skills-focused courses is what it should be.

In short, we would -- and do -- have a lot still to learn.

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