How the teaching-research balance has changed

Each week, Symposium Magazine invites authors to guest-blog. This week’s featured article is The Changing Face of Violence by Joel F. Harrington.J. H. Hexter’s 1954 account of “The Historian and his Day” includes a one-page summary of his own daily routine. The morning portion is admirably succinct (and distinctly anti-dramatic):

“I rise early and have breakfast. While eating, I glance through the morning paper and read the editorial page. I then go to the college that employs me and teach for two to four hours five days a week. Most of the time the subject matter I deal with in class is cobwebbed with age. Three fourths of it dates back from a century and a quarter to three millennia; all of it happened at least thirty years ago.”

The first part of Hexter’s morning eerily resembles my own. Unlike most of my colleagues, I still subscribe to and read the print version of my local newspaper. (On Sundays I add The New York Times). By contrast, the majority of my colleagues, especially those under 40, will immediately consult the online versions of various national newspapers and magazines, as well as various blogs and online offerings. It seems unlikely that the diversity of sources consulted makes any of us more informed or influences our historical scholarship, but I will return to this issue later in the week.

What struck me more forcefully about Hexter’s daily routine was the amount of time he spent in the classroom. Today, a research university like mine (Vanderbilt) or his (Washington University, St. Louis) would require about a third of his normal course load—what we call “ two and two” (two three-hour courses each semester) or even two and one. Colleagues at liberal arts or community colleges, on the other hand, might be expected to teach four and four (or 3-3-3 on a quarter system).

What this means in practice is that an academic historian one or two generations ago experienced a much different teaching-research balance than today. In our own polarized profession, historians expected to publish more articles and books spend less time with students, and those who spend much more time with students have ever less time for scholarship. Of course, we also meet with and advise undergraduates, but this growing bifurcation of our profession necessarily influences the subject and form of the history we write.

One of the most obvious results of this research-teaching dichotomy is a glut of books by academic historians that deal with ever-narrower topics in terms aimed primarily at the peers who will most affect an individual’s tenure and promotion prospects. While clarity remains a core virtue of historical writing, the intended audience (with the notable exception of textbooks) is hardly ever the average undergraduate, much less the broader reading public. It’s a cliché among academic historians that “we learn so much from our students.” While this may be true on a personal basis, it doesn’t seem to have much of an impact on published scholarship (again, excepting books specifically written for classroom use—itself a declining genre).

Meanwhile, our courses likewise fluctuate between “global history” in one semester at a teaching intensive institution to specialized courses such as “Post-WWII Japanese popular culture” at research universities. Both types of courses serve their respective purposes—the former providing a broad historical frame of reference, the latter bringing a historian’s own research closer to students—but the general disconnect between student’s expectations and those of their instructors remains a perennial problem. With no foreseeable change in current institutional structures, the teaching-research balance of Hexter’s day seems unlikely to ever return.

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