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Horse or Cart?

2006-07-20

Some readers may raise the following assertion: students flock to the university campuses to learn. And doing research can definitely be a part of learning processes. Hence, doing research is also a legitimate activity on campus.

To analyze or clarify their assertion, we must let our mindsí eyes see the same picture first.

For teaching, the picture seems simple and clear. A professor stands in front of the students, talking, writing on blackboards, showing slides, conveying some existing knowledge to the students. Along with the regular lectures, he may assign homeworks, projects, and exams to the students. After the semester is finished, he may also give grades to the students.

The picture of doing research may not be as clear or well defined as that of teaching may be. We can imagine seeing the professor and the students working, discussing, interacting, with heads together, hands on something together, on a certain scientific project inside a laboratory. Or they may work separately first, but then assemble once in approximately a week to share and discuss their own findings with one another.

Or if we like, we can replace the laboratory with a computer room, if the project is computation-oriented. We can also replace the laboratory with an archeological site, if the project is related to archeology. Since the professor is more experienced and more knowledgeable than the students are, he rightfully serves as a mentor, or an advisor. He guides the general direction of the project, helps the students to answer their questions, and offer suggestions.

In any case, the primary purpose of the project is for the students to learn. If the professor happens to also learn during the research process, that is fine, too. But his learning should belong to only the secondary incidental purpose of the project.

In addition, the objectives of these projects that they work on should, in general, aim at cultivating studentsí independent thinking ability, or their innovative ideas. They should NOT aim at professor's, nor should they necessarily lead to journal paper publishing for the professor, so that he can enhance his curriculum vitae.

If some money needs to be spent for these projects, it should be already included in studentsí tuition, which has been collected by the university in advance. Hence the research money should be dished out from the universityís coffer, but not separately from any external sources.

If our readersí mindsí eyes see this picture as doing research, then their concept is correct. They can rightfully assert that, yes, we should include doing research in the university curriculums. Unfortunately, however, this picture is not what is portrayed in reality in a typical university in the U. S. nowadays.

Without exaggeration, if there are 100 hours that a professor has for doing research, typically 80 hours must be spent in writing research proposals, writing journal papers, visiting potential funding agencies, and attending conferences or giving seminars in order to establish connections. In fact, attracting funding has become the most important part of doing research, because the university generally does not provide the professor with research funds, and professors outnumber the funding available nationwide.

Ten hours are spent in listening to the students briefing their research progress, and in relaying this progress report to the funding agencies. The remaining 10 hours are finally spent in working on the technical part of the project. In fact, some professors even skip these remaining 10 hours altogether. They have become 100% administrative managers.

The flaws of this picture can thus be summarized in following questions:

(a) Isnít it strange that the university receives money FROM the projects, instead of providing money TO the projects?

(b) Isnít it strange that the professor receives progress information FROM the students, instead of conveying it TO the students?

(c) Isn't it strange that the university appears so eager to encourage its faculty members to seek research funding? Is such eagerness purely for its studentsí learning benefits?

(d) Students are still in the process of learning, but they have already played the major roles in doing research. If such results are published in journal papers, can the value or the quality of these papers be much higher than that of their homework?

(e) When the professor travels to out-of-town places to attend conferences, does he do so only during the summer and holidays? If not, what happens to his regular teaching duty? (answer: His regular teaching duty is carried out by teaching assistants, post-doctors, or non-professorial instructors. These scholars are generally less qualified than the professor is, and receive less salaries than the professor does. Thus, the students' learning suffers, but the institute gains in salary savings.)

(f) Isn't it strange that the students are usually known as Research Assistants? The professor and his institute are the principals, instead. The students merely exist to be hired and to ASSIST. Who should be the horse, and who should be the cart?

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