Research Is Teaching


Reprinted by permission of the Modern Language Association of America from ADE Bulletin 149 (2010): 53-60


ADE Bulletin Number 149, 2010

ADE and the Association of Departments of English are trademarks owned by the Modern Language Association. 2010 by the Association of Departments of English, CrossRef DOI: 10.1632/ade.149.53, ISSN 00010898

Research Is Teaching

Cathy N. Davidson


The author is John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies and Ruth F. Devarney Professor of English at Duke University. A version of the article was presented at the 2008 MLA Convention in San Francisco.

Theory versus Practice

At my university as at many others, tenure guidelines often make it sound as if teaching doesnt count very much. At Duke, the guidelines explicitly state that excellence in teaching and service are not sufficient for tenure (Chapter 3). However, the published requirements for tenure do not comparably state that publication alone is not sufficient for tenure. Does that asymmetry imply that a great teacher and colleague without significant publications will be denied tenure but that a widely published and widely acclaimed researcher with terrible teaching and no service will progress to tenure and promotion?

That is the question.

And if you think my answer is a simple yes, youre wrong.

Indeed, part of the conflict faced by junior faculty memberstypically framed as the binary of teaching or researchis that we put so much emphasis on publication as the road to tenure that they are often shocked to find that teaching counts. And so does service. Both count far more than our profession overtly acknowledges.

In this brief essay, I point to a number of misalignments in the profession of English between what we say about the worth and importance of teaching and research and how we put those values into practice. I propose some concrete steps toward remedying the misalignment in the present and then suggest how we can rethink key issues more broadly to rectify the misalignment in the future. Because this subject is prone to misinterpretation, let me be explicit in my premises. I am arguing that our practices do not match the values we express, and the mismatch goes in two directions at once. First, we lay so much value on research that it is easy to miss how important good teaching is to earning tenureespecially now that teaching evaluations and faculty-student ratios are in the news and in the legislatures too. Second, although we say that the scholarly monograph is the gold standard of research for our profession, we are infamouscompared with faculty members in virtually all other fieldsfor not buying one anothers monographs and for not assigning them in our undergraduate or graduate classrooms. That means that what we purport to value as research doesnt translate to our book-buying and syllabus-building practices. One consequence is that more and more publishers are shying away from publishing monographs on literary topics. A monograph in our field can be expected to sell only a few hundred copies. Most monographs enjoy no course adoption.

Given these two different ways in which the theory of our profession and the actual practices of those in the profession are misaligned, is it any surprise that a junior faculty member could be confused or become cynical? More than other fields, ours confirms the negative stereotype that we crank out our monographs simply to get tenure, that we write not to communicate to the next generation, not to share ideas among our colleagues, not to shape a field, but to meet the minimum standards of tenure and promotion committees. Thats pretty appalling. And to make matters worse, we are English teachers. Our business is the analysis of texts as well as the improvement of critical writing and reading. If our own professional reading practices are so misaligned with our professional writing practices, what values about the worth of our profession are we modeling for our undergraduate and graduate students?

If we understood our research instead as a form of teaching (teaching not only our students but also one another), our profession would profit on many levels at once. As I have been arguing for the last decade, if our discipline took its cultural role more seriously, we would be thriving right now instead of feeling trapped in the perpetual hand-wringing over our declining numbers and our everlasting crisis in the humanities. English departments have a tremendous amount to offer our historical moment, in this information age when every aspect of reading and writing is under scrutiny and transformation. The skills we have as cultural and literary historians, as theorists of all forms of media, as students of language, and as critical readers of cultural texts are tremendously valuable now. But until we accept the challenge of who we are and what we offer as a discipline, we will continue to dwindle into irrelevance and will find an ever-greater imbalance between our preachings and our practices.

Teaching and Tenure

Over my career Ive taught at different kinds of institutions. The four-year institutions include a liberal arts college, a mammoth second-tier state university, an Ivy League school, and Duke University, where I am now. At all these, teaching is the bottom line. But it is sometimes an unspoken bottom line. Too often it is simply assumed that you are an excellent teacher and that scholarship is the monumental hurdle. Certainly, if ones teaching is good, if ones evaluations and enrollments are high, if one can be counted on to perform well in the classroom, and if one is a good colleague who contributes, then all eyes focus on external letters of evaluation. External peer review (and, ludicrously, external letters are being used more and more often for first-and third-year reviews) implies that you already exist beyond your institution, that you are a public, professional person whose productivity in the profession can be assessed from your publications or performances at scholarly meetings.

However, that is not the whole story. Junior faculty members rarely know what happens behind the closed door of an actual departmental tenure meeting. Typically, you are not allowed in a tenure meeting until you have passed through the tenure process yourself. In my experience and in that of dozens of others with whom I have spoken about this issue, the conversation in tenure meetings tends to be very different when the teaching is excellent from when it is not. If excellent, the teaching is noted and then the discussion focuses on the quality and quantity of the scholarship. When the teaching is mediocre and institutional citizenship undependable, the entire dossier is subjected to a different level of scrutiny; a changed standard of judgment subtly or strikingly comes into play. Bad teaching colors the discussion of everything else. This is the deep, dark secret of the profession: teaching counts.

If you think my argument is naive, that everyone knows teaching doesnt matter and especially not at Research 1 universities, consider this: senior scholars are not necessarily altruistic. They do not think kindly of someone who makes their jobs harder, no matter how brilliant that junior person may be. If you have shown yourself to be a mediocre teacher who is not likely to be a good mentor to graduate students, someone with a poor record of service who is likely to be a disaster as the departments next director of undergraduate studies or graduate studies, you do not contribute anything that will lighten the load of the senior faculty. What does the star senior faculty member have to gain by voting for a freeloader, even if a brilliant one?

As one who writes a few dozen appointment, renewal, tenure, or promotion letters each year, I state that teaching matters in our profession. Yet we do not spend much time helping graduate students be more successful as teachers. Even less frequently do we underscore the relation between teaching and research in an overt, noncynical, and therefore productive way. We would be doing a great service to our graduate students if we emphasized the continuities of teaching and research and how both fit into the other demands of a career, including those of departmental, university, and professional citizenship. Junior faculty members often believe that the time they spend on their teaching hurts their research. Rarely do they believe the opposite.

There are many reasons for this perennial tug-of-war between teaching and research, and many able scholars in our profession have tackled this issue in the pages of this journal as well as in PMLA and in dozens of articles and books. Gerald Graff, Annette Kolodny, and others have eloquently analyzed it. I too have addressed this topic, focusing on the urgent need, in the face of our ever-dwindling numbers, to rearticulate the mission of our profession, broaden the scope of the humanities, and remap the contours of higher education on just about every level (Humanities 2.0). In this brief essay, I address not such overarching issues as the future of learning institutions in a digital age (Davidson and Goldberg) but instead focus on one particular aspect of the teaching-research conundrum that pertains in specific, material ways to the profession of English. The recommendation I offer is so simple that anyone reading this essay can put down the ADE Bulletin, go to the desktop, and in a few clicks make a change that will help our profession in ways that are anything but trivial. At the risk of sounding like a snake-oil salesman, I insist that one simple change in our practice can improve our health as a discipline, contribute to real and material benefits for our profession, and help our graduate students and junior colleagues appreciate the inherently symbiotic relation between teaching and research.

Practicing What We Preach: Teaching the Scholarly Monograph

Dig out the syllabi for your next English courses and add one or (if you want to get really wild) two scholarly monographs. Ditch the course pack youve planned and go for actual, real, whole books produced by the scholar or scholars whose work you respect most. The clearest evidence of the existing structural misalignment in our field is the hyperbolic, ambivalent, and almost schizophrenic role into which we have cast the scholarly monograph. We require the writing of monographs for advancement in our field. We do not require that our students read themand we dont read them very much ourselves.

The stats are alarming. According to a study conducted by the MLA, 88.8% of the departments in Carnegie Research/ Doctorate institutions reported that the publication of a monograph was either very important or important to earning tenure. In a profession notably atomized by national literatures, periods, genres, and diverse interest areas (such as linguistics, rhetoric, and creative writing), in one where the culture wars can still rage, its hard to imagine what else would garner that degree of consensus. Even in Carnegie institutions classified as Masters and Baccalaureate institutions, a surprising 43.9% and 48.0%, respectively, report that the scholarly monograph is important for tenure (Report).

Given that embrace of the monograph as the key to tenure in our profession, it should follow that monographs in literature sell like hotcakes. In fact, they sell a meager two hundred or three hundred copies. Even prize-winning books in the field rarely top the thousand mark. That means the form of publishing that as a profession we say we value most isnt selling enough to pay for the cost of its publication. That means the form of publishing that as a profession we say we value most isnt being widely taught and probably isnt being widely read. Here is something we can change, now: we can read, buy, and assign the very books we say we value.

In our next courses, undergrad and grad, let us make a concerted effort to assign one, two, or maybe even three scholarly monographs that exemplify what we say we value most as a profession. If we dont value what we say we do, how can we expect anyone else to value us? If we believe monographs are worthwhile, lets teach them. Teaching them requires us, of course, to think about them as a genre and to make sure were reading new ones as they appear and not just reading them for the tenure committees we sit on. As with any book we select for a syllabus, we are picking and choosing among many worthy options, deciding which are the most compelling and representative, which translate to the classroom, which have relevance beyond a specific field, which are most inspiring in content and form. Our selection is a way of explaining to our students the importance of the scholarly genre to which weve devoted a significant part of our life.

Whether we like monographs or not, whether we think they will last or are dying out, whether we believe they should be published electronically or in paper, and whether we believe they should have such determinative power over our careers, for now, at present, we, as members of our profession, continue to decree that a scholar needs to publish one in order to be granted tenure at most four-year institutions. If you disagree with that premise, work to change it. If you are supporting that premise (in your peer reviewing, in your tenure votes, in your own career), well, then, its about time you stopped being a hypocrite. Put your money where your mouth is!

We require a monograph for a scholars entry into the profession but do not respect the form enough to teach it in our classes. This imbalance is field-specific and almost singular. We are monographic fundamentalists in our theology but monographic agnostics in our religious observance. No wonder young professionals in our field are confused about the relation between teaching and research. Other fields teach what they prescribe. Historians teach the best new books in history in their undergraduate and graduate classrooms. They take as the subject of their courses not only the content about a given historical field but also the practice of writing professional history. So do anthropologists. Where do English students learn about the finest practices of writing professional, book-length literary criticism? Articles are not equivalent in form to a scholarly monograph. Or maybe they are. Consider the misalignment in the reverse direction. If course packs of articles constitute the gold standard of what we want to communicate to our students about the best practices of the profession of English, then why are we pretending there is something special about the monograph as a formso special that tenure and promotion depend on its production?

We cannot continue to require the writing of books for which we do not cultivate an audience. Fewer and fewer university presses publish literary criticism, junior faculty members have little reason to believe that they write for any reason other than to impress the senior faculty members who will judge them, and our students dont get to see the product of our intellectual labor in what we insist is its finest form. Could a professions practice be more self-defeating?

This situation will only get worse. With the drastic decline in endowments for private schools and with ballooning debt and draconian cuts to state university budgets, university publishers (all of which are subsidized in one way or another) are in peril. They have to meet a strict bottom line, or they face extinction. Why should they publish books in fields where those books are not taught, where even prize-winning books dont sell? Unlike historians or anthropologists, who teach the best new examples of work in their field, English professors teach so-called primary texts and then course packs. Through course-pack pedagogy, we cheat our colleagues, our university press publishers, and inevitably ourselves.

By not teaching the monograph as a genre, we are depriving ourselves of the opportunity to teach and therefore to study what this genre can do, what it cannot do, what it does well, and what might be done better in other forms. The English monograph has become a perfectly preserved relic, an artifact frozen in time, like a museum piece viewed behind glass but not handled. Producing it has the features of a cultural initiation rite: perform the rite successfully, and you go to the next level of the professional priesthood. Does the monograph serve the purpose for which it was designed? How would we know? One publisher tells me that he alone turns down thirty book proposals or manuscripts a week. But if a monograph in English sells only a few hundred copies, it seems that more of us write them than read them, more of us write them than teach them. The form is clearly outmoded.

Heres a summary assessment of the state of the scholarly monograph in the profession of English today.

1. Most doctorate-granting departments require one monograph for tenure, two for promotion to full professor.

2. Yet we do not support colleagues whom we believe have written the finest examples of the genrewe dont buy them, we dont assign them.

3. We do not teach monographs even on the graduate level and so miss the chance to teach graduate students how to evaluate and master the form that we say represents the finest articulation of our disciplinary form of thinking.

4. By not requiring that our students study monographs, we are making monographs so unprofitable that many university presses want out of the market.

5. We thereby undercut our own chances and that of our younger colleagues and graduate students of having venues for publishing that crucial monograph required for tenure or promotion.

Those five statements do not add up to anything like a healthy relation between research and teaching. They do not add up to a healthy profession. By contrast, teaching what we research does material good to our profession and, I am convinced, psychological good as well. It demystifies the process of producing a monograph by helping us understand the product in generic, structural terms. That knowledge can be applied in writing ones own dissertation, article, and book. I hope it will also help graduate students understand that what they write has importance beyond themselves and future dissertation and tenure committees. And I hope, when they are able to teach, that they too use scholarly monographs in their courses, to convey to their students the importance of our chosen profession.

There is much about our profession that needs radical transformation. Reconceptualizing our learning institutions for the digital age is a grand-scale, long-term objective. However, as we are working together to reform ourselves as a profession, it is also comforting to have an immediate, short-term goal that is simple, easy, obvious, and healthy. When we teach by using the form of communication by which we ourselves are judgedthe scholarly monographwe are not only teaching the best accomplishments in our field, we are also coming to understand the mechanisms of communication necessary for our scholarly productivity. Research is teaching, learning is theorybut only if we correct the structural misalignment in our profession that alienates us from our scholarly productivity and makes the classroom seem less like the logical extension of our scholarship and more like a diversion and distraction from it.

Beyond the Scholarly Monograph

There is a final benefit to teaching the scholarly monograph. We all know that teaching is the best way to learn. Teaching the monograph as a genre encourages us to ask questions about the formal characteristics of the genre. What is a literary monograph? Why do we prize it? What do the best examples of the form succeed in doing? Why is this important? Is close reading the right way to convey an idea? Is periodization important to our argument? What about nationalism? Are there other ways of conveying the same insights? Are there better ways? Does it really take five hundred pages to make our point effectively?

We rarely ask formal questions about the genre that governs so much of our lives. I value the monograph as a form. There are certain complex, unfolding ideas that can be conveyed fully, eloquently, and well only in it. But it should not be the only standard for tenure and promotion. Not every topic is best served by presentation in monographic form. One can be a fine theorist or researcher and never write a monograph. (Stuart Hall springs immediately to mind.) It makes no sense that we have taken a complex, difficult genre (and one that we dont even teach) as the only way to determine if a junior faculty member deserves what is, in essence, lifelong employment in our profession. Tenure is an amazing privilege and giftand necessary if our society is ever going to have a place where ideas are supported regardless of either politics or profitability. Tenure is the professions best bet on who will deliver on the promise of decades of fresh ideas, continue to contribute vitality to the profession over the course of a career, and pass on insights to the next generation of thinkers. Is a one-size-fits-all research and publication requirement the best way to choose such people?

I dont think so. The present one-book-for-tenure and two-for-full-professor requirements are an impoverished way of measuring one of the most important features of academic life. If the academy is that designated place in society where ideas may be pursued without the constraints of politics or making a profit, then we need to grasp that our role is to be lifelong disseminators of learning (not just education), lifelong inspirers of freethinking creativity. We need standards commensurate to our mission. We need flexible measures to predict who is most likely to have the zeal, passion, commitment, and intellectual ability to contribute to society when obtaining tenure and promotion are no longer the objective. We should be seeking an insatiable quality of mind, as evidenced by publication (including multimedia, online) in the most compelling way imaginable for a particular research project.

A scholarly monograph is only one of many ways to communicate our research and ideas. The misalignment in the current academy between our requirements for tenure and our book-buying and book-assigning practices should inspire us to think about what constitutes the best form for conveying our research and ideas, to rethink the scholarly monograph as the only form. I am not suggesting a loosening of standards. Simply giving up standards means that you grant lifelong employment to whoever comes next and freeze out future scholars from the opportunity. An argument for better and more diverse standards is not an argument on behalf of no standards. Quite the opposite. 

HASTAC (pronounced haystack, an acronym for the Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory) is a virtual network I cofounded with David Theo Goldberg and others in 2002 (see Davidson and Goldberg, Future of Thinking). We are currently joining task forces, commissions, and committees sponsored by the MLA and other professional associations to support tenure guidelines that endorse many different forms of scholarly production. Along with other professional organizations, we are insisting that multiple forms of publication (including online and multimedia) should be counted for tenure in our digital age. We are also supporting the work of other organizations in thinking through how those different modes of production might be assessed. Reassessing our mechanisms for evaluating the quality and quantity of scholarly productivity is a task long overdue.

However, I am a realist and know that even if every scholarly organization in the country endorsed a more flexible set of assessments for tenure and promotion, it might still be a decade (or two or three) before most departments of English vote for such a change. So while were all waiting for a change that must and eventually will come, I am suggesting a short-term fix whose benefits are immediate and significant. Teaching our research in the form that currently we say we value most is good for pedagogy and the best way to support our research now, today.

So, now together, everybody: Take out your syllabus for that upcoming course. Eliminate the course pack (admit it: your students dont read all those articles anyway). Substitute a few scholarly monographs that you believe best represent our profession and our ideals. Then think through, with your students, what a scholarly monograph is, what it does better than any other form, when it is essential to the practice of research and teaching in our profession and when it is not.

When the mode of our research becomes the subject of our teaching, we will be able to celebrate the best examples of our work in a way that inspires our students and is healthy for our profession. At the same time, a practice of reading scholarly monographs with an eye to teaching them should also help us see more clearly where and when the genre does not do the significant task that we say it does in our tenure committees.

If teaching scholarly monographs were required in the syllabi of any field that requires writing one for tenure, we would be able to evaluate its efficacy in a different way than we do now, when we read monographs mostly when someones entire career is at stake. Reading them together with our students in our classrooms will not only support authors and publishers in doing what we say they should be doing, it will also help us decide whether the scholarly monograph is really the be-all and end-all of what we do as researchers and as teachers.

Works Cited

Chapter 3: Faculty Appointment, Promotion, and Tenure. The Duke University Faculty Handbook. Office of the Provost, Duke U, Aug. 2009. Web. 29 Sept. 2009.

Davidson, Cathy N. Humanities 2.0: Promise, Perils, Predictions. PMLA 123.3 (2008): 70718. Print.

Davidson, Cathy N., and David Theo Goldberg. The Future of Learning Institutions in a Digital Age. Cambridge: MITP, 2009. Print. John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Research Paper.

. The Future of Thinking: Research Institutions in a Digital Age. Cambridge: MITP, forthcoming.

Graff, Gerald. Clueless in Academe: How School Obscures the Life of the Mind. New Haven: Yale UP, 2004. Print.

Kolodny, Annette. Failing the Future: A Dean Looks at Higher Education in the Twenty-First Century. Durham: Duke UP, 1998. Print.

Report of the MLA Task Force on Evaluating Scholarship for Tenure and Promotion. Profession (2007): 971. MLA, Dec. 2006. Web. 29 Sept. 2009.


Cathy Davidson

Curious: Blog and Scholarly Publishing

It's interesting that over a thousand people have read this post since I reblogged it three days ago.   It would be fascinating to compare the numbers of readers in its original print version in ADE Bulletin.   I'm not sure there's a way to know.  I've emailed one of the editors who is simply pleased to see these numbers.  It's good for the article, for ADE Bulletin, and for advocacy for both scholarly publishing and reconceptualizing our ideas of tenure to have more readers, in any and every format.