In response to my previous post on educational frills, my friend Bryce Bunting (his excellent blog is here) asked if I thought that research was a frill. Here is his full question:
I'm wondering where faculty research would fit in to a model like this and, under what conditions, faculty research contributes to student learning. In other words, is it a frill?
I'd be hard put to say that research itself (defined, say, as asking a hard question and finding an answer that engages with the theories and traditions of a discipline) is a frill. It is too much a part of the day-to-day lives of teachers and students.
But I would say that the system of research that exists on most campuses is a frill. By this I mean that research generally points faculty away from the students they serve towards a narrow audience of non-students. So the learning that takes place in the classroom is rarely influenced by the faculty member's research. (Interestingly, this is even more the case in learning-centered classrooms, where faculty ask questions, shape learning experiences, etc. rather than imparting content, even though content development is the central goal of their research.) The main beneficiaries of research in this system are its funders (esp. the federal government and big businesses that support much of the science), the faculty (whose jobs are often contingent on publishing research), and their colleagues on other campuses engaged in similar research.
I can certainly imagine a research system that supports a no-frills education. Let's say that for every 100 students, there are 3 faculty members and 2 researchers. The faculty and the researchers are together responsible for student learning. Their relationships is collaborative--the researchers are feeding them new information, and the faculty are constantly asking the researchers questions. Both groups mentor students. The impact of their work is (or is not, whichever the case may be) clearly visible in the learning of the students.
One could even imagine a bigger system--in a state for example--where the Research I institution drops the pretext of educating undergraduates. Instead, it carries out research and trains new graduate-level researchers. The results of their work serve to inform the learning taking place on other campuses in the state. In turn, the performance of those campuses shapes the research questions that get asked. You get a more efficient system, one where the content is richer, and one where the learning of students is a key component of all of the intellectual work of its faculty.