Academic Research Is Classroom Preparation

Professor James H. Cox. Photo by Marsha Miller.

There is a determined effort to separate teaching and research in public discourse about university education in Texas. For professors at UT, however, our teaching and research are very closely related; for most of us, research is classroom preparation.

Late at night and on weekends, during winter, spring, and summer breaks, we are in laboratories, libraries, and museums; at dig sites, seminars, and conferences; and in front of our computers surrounded by stacks of books. Many UT professors are good teachers because when they get to the classroom they are prepared and feel confident that they have done their homework.

Though they might be teaching The Sun Also Rises for the 10th time, they have read the most recent scholarly articles on Hemingway’s fiction, a just-published history of the lost generation, and his work on bullfighting, Death in the Afternoon. They have researched the history of Jewish students at Princeton, H. L. Mencken’s reporting on the Scopes trial, and Basque separatism. Their classrooms are exciting and full of ideas because they are full of ideas. They might even write an article on what they learned in order to share it with their peers.

No one would tolerate a medical doctor or attorney who hasn’t done her research, who hasn’t read the most recent articles in her area of expertise in medical or law journals or who hasn’t attended continuing-education seminars. The research is what makes her a good doctor when she walks into the room to treat you, or a good attorney when she walks into a courtroom to represent you. It is also what makes so many of my colleagues some of the best teachers and most respected researchers in the world.

So I wonder about the origins of the hostility to research and the misrepresentation of university professors as people who do not care about their teaching and, by inference, their students. There is a lack of public trust that teachers are actually working or that the work they do really matters. A public discourse that is often anti-educator and anti-intellectual feeds the hostility, as does the contempt for critical thinking and appalling disregard for precise language and empirical facts.

Many politicians and those who influence education policy, presumably most if not all with university educations that helped make them successful, also generalize about what university professors actually do. We prepare lectures, grade assignments, read theses and dissertations, meet with students, and write letters of recommendation for graduate school applications, jobs, grants, and fellowships. Many of us are administrators overseeing various programs and centers. We edit journals and write books, lead reading and study groups, speak at student and community events, attend committee meetings and graduations. We develop new curriculum and research the latest developments in pedagogy for large lecture courses, as I did this summer with a committee in the English Department while I was also teaching in the first summer session.

I was finishing my second book at the same time. The focus of the book overlapped with the content of the course, and my research helped me each day to convey clearly and persuasively the social, cultural, historical, and political value of literature and the critical thinking we do about it in my courses. It is a fiction that research isolates professors from students and makes us bad teachers, just as it is a fiction that the university is an ivory tower separate from a real world outside the boundaries of the campus. We research and teach in and about that real world, and we work to help prepare our students to have happy, successful, fulfilling lives in it.

James H. Cox is an associate professor of English and the winner of the President’s Associates Teaching Award and Regents’ Outstanding Teaching Award. He is the author of Muting White Noise: Native American and European American Novel Traditions and the forthcoming Literary Revolutions: American Indian Writers and Indigenous Mexico and co-editor of the forthcoming Oxford Handbook to Indigenous American Literature.


Tags: , ,


No comments

Be the first one to leave a comment.

Post a Comment