Sunday, July 09, 2006

Teaching vs. Scholarship

UPDATE: I respond to Larry Solum here.

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You occasionally come across the argument that academia rewards scholarship too much, to the possible detriment of students. That is, academia fails to reward good teaching to the extent that it rewards brilliant scholarship.

The response is usually something like this: Scholarship and teaching are not at odds with each other. Instead, if professors are deeply involved in producing the most current scholarship, they will be all the better at teaching their students.

I see two problems with this response. First, I doubt that it is true, at least as to most undergraduate students. For example, a university sophomore might take a semester-long survey of political science. Is there any actual evidence that the sorts of people who write the latest articles seen here or here are better at teaching an introductory survey course? In particular, are they better than a professor who spends the bulk of his/her time thinking about how to teach an effective introductory survey course? Color me skeptical.

Second, I suspect that the more important relationship between teaching and scholarship is the other way around. That is, what's really going on is that the act of preparing for and teaching a class improves a professor's ability to produce thoughtful scholarship.

Let me explain why I think this. I've written several law review articles over the past several years myself. One thing that I've noticed is that if I go back to a law review article I wrote three or four years ago, it can almost be like reading someone else's work. I find myself thinking, "Hmm, I'd forgotten that I made that point," or being unable to remember exactly what was said in various sources that I had cited, etc.

Why is this? For one simple reason: No matter how intensely you study a particular subject, if time goes by without regular review, it's easy for the details to slip from your memory. But teaching a course inherently requires regular review -- not just of your own scholarship on a given subject, but of everything else that is relevant to that subject. If you're going to stand in front of a group of people and explain a particular legal subject, you have to know the ins and outs of all the important cases/statutes/commentary. It's not enough to know this stuff "on paper" -- you have to know it stone cold, so that you can answer practically any question that students might throw your way.

What's more, you have to know the subject well enough to explain it to beginners. I think that this requires more in-depth knowledge than merely being able to converse with other "experts." When you're talking to beginners, you have to understand the topic well enough to boil it down to the basics. You can't get away with casually referring to some abstraction on the assumption that everyone else will know what you're talking about.

In turn, because teaching a class forces you to master a subject in such great detail that you can readily speak about it off the top of your head, your own scholarship in that area will likely be more informed, more thought-out, possibly even more creative.

I'm just guessing here, but I think it's a good guess.


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