Why I Research

In a recent LA Times Op-Ed Naomi Riley bemoaned academic research in the California State University system. The CSU, she argued, is a “teaching university;” why is the CSU faculty engaging in research? According to her description full-time faculty avoid teaching by shifting the burden to lecturer faculty so that pre-tenure and more senior faculty can engage in research. Research is the mission of the University of California system, she argues, not the mission of the CSU. In conclusion she scolded CSU faculty, “get back to teaching.”

Ms. Riley’s essay suggests that only faculty benefit from research, earning tenure and promotion for their efforts. The fact is, students benefit from faculty who are actively engaged in research.

There is an old saying: “Those who can do, those who can’t teach.” The implication is that if we were any good at what we do we would be doing it rather than teaching it. Research is all about doing; and doing research makes me a better teacher.

One of the courses that I teach is called “research methods.” In that course students learn how to engage in the systematic analysis of political questions.  For instance, we might want to understand why some people vote while others do not. In this course students develop the ability to construct evidence-based explanations, engage in quantitative analysis of real world data, and consider how policy solutions might change individual behaviors.

How can I teach students to do research if I do not do research myself? Would you hire a personal trainer who did not keep himself in shape? Would you hire a plumber who did not fix your plumbing problem but only told you how you might fix it yourself? Probably not. So would you want to learn research methods from someone who does not engage in research?  I certainly would not.

In my other courses I bring the fruits of my research directly into the classroom. Rather than parrot the textbook by teaching students what others have learned, I bring cutting-edge research on political institutions directly to my students, including the several hundred students to whom I teach Introduction to American Politics every year.

Some of my undergraduate students become directly involved in my research. Using data collected by me and my coauthor they gain hands-on experience pursuing a research project from beginning to end, and they present that research at student research conferences in California. Undergraduate research allows students to apply the knowledge and skills learned through their coursework to complex substantive political questions. Presenting at conferences allow them to gain experience in public speaking, increase their confidence, and help them to build a resume.

Some criticize us for producing students who are “book smart” but do not know how to apply their knowledge and skills. Undergraduate research unites the abstract and the applied and better prepares students for the workforce.

Many of my undergraduate research students are first generation college students (like me) who, perhaps, never considered the value of pursuing graduate work much less pursuing a job in higher education. Are these educational experiences that should be reserved for students who attend the elite University of California schools, prominent private schools like the Claremont Graduate University, or Ivy League schools? Do students who attend a CSU campus not deserve these opportunities? If I did not engage in research these opportunities would not be available to my students.

There are several other indirect ways that my research benefits my students.

Research helps me to build networks inside the real world of politics. These networks benefit our students. One of my standard research tools is “the interview.” By talking with politicians, political staff, lobbyists, and others involved in politics I gain insight into the practice of politics, and that benefits my research. But I also establish relationships with my “subjects.” By capitalizing on these relationships I am able to help students get internships that can lead to employment either directly, as the internship turns into full time work, or indirectly as the experience gained on the job makes the student more attractive to another employer.

Research helps me to build networks in academia. These networks benefit our students. Many of our students decide to pursue graduate education. They need letters of recommendation. Not all recommendations are equal.  A letter that comes from a faculty member who has a “reputation” in the field carries more weight than a letter from an anonymous faculty member. Writing articles and books, and attending professional conferences to present my research improves my profile, connecting me with faculty from across the country. Sometimes a personal email or phone call to a faculty member that I know at their “first choice” graduate institution will get their application closer consideration, or an improved financial aid offer.

Faculty who are engaged in research are better teachers, better advocates for their students, and improve the reputation of the CSU system and their individual campuses. Ms. Riley does not fully appreciate that there is not a “strict wall of separation” between teaching and research. Teaching and research complement one another.

It does not surprise me that someone who has seemingly no sustained experience in college-level teaching or systematic research does not appreciate the relationship between the teaching and research. The implied accusation that CSU faculty are shortchanging their students by engaging in research is scurrilous at worst and unintentionally harmful at best. Discouraging faculty research in the CSU risks ghettoizing a CSU education; I will not be a party to that because our CSU students deserve the same quality education offered at the UCs and other more “prestigious” campuses throughout the country.

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3 thoughts on “Why I Research

  1. MK says:

    The author forgot to mention that the vast majority of political science research is obscure to the extent that it does not contribute to teaching whatsoever.

    I currently work at a research university and I have no doubt that students at teaching institutions receive better education. Most of the so-called researchers are lousy teachers as they do not see teaching as their priority. Besides, most of the arguments offered above serve to make research seem more important. In reality, no one cares about social science research – we are not curing cancer. We SHOULD focus on teaching so that our students become well-informed citizens who are capable of independent thinking.

    • Your entire comment is filled with generalizations that have no support. You stated that the vast majority of political science research is obscure. I know political science researchers studying how to make electoral systems more fair and accessible. why some policies are more likely to be adopted than others, and the role of outside money in shaping legislative decisions. Given how significantly our world is shaped by political institutions, it’s fairly difficult to ask a theoretical question in political science that does not have import in the “real world.” You made a similar statement about social science research–that no one cares because we aren’t “curing cancer.” First, I’d point out that few people in the world do work that will truly save lives, but that this has never been the measuring stick for what it means to engage in a meaningful life. The truth is we all die–”life saving” work might delay that inevitability to an age when it’s more acceptable to die, but in the interim there are a lot of things that can be done to improve quality of life. Social science researchers regularly engage in that kind of work. As “social” scientists our work is, inherently, about engaging with the world and understanding better how it works, and typically making recommendations about improving the world. Perhaps you’ve simply been around bad researchers.

      You state that we should focus on teaching to create well informed citizens capable of independent thinking, but I’d ask you simply: what would we teach? In political science, would we simply teach “how government works”? Would it be a civics lesson? If so, much of that is taken care of in high school if not earlier. And it doesn’t create independent thought. The most independent thinkers I know are the ones who look at a system and ask why it’s like that, or to what ends it is put, or how it could be improved, or any number of questions that probe the complexities in which we live. Social science researchers are those kinds of thinkers, and they’re the kind most capable of creating students who are capable of engaging with the world instead of just reacting passively to it.

  2. [...] the arts anyway). Research and creative activities at all levels of higher education has tremendous benefits to students in the classroom and after they [...]

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