Research vs. teaching in higher education

I know we have a few academic-types around the League, so I thought I’d share this post by Frances Woolley, an Economics professor at Carleton University (Go Ravens!). In it, she asks, “why is research higher status than teaching?”

But if the actual substance of much academic research is only of intelligible to a small group of scholars, why is it accorded such high status? Why are taxpayers prepared to fund research intensive universities? Why do undergraduate students choose to attend research intensive universities, even though the “top scholars” may have little contact with undergrads?

I think this is because research output is a signal of ability. To function as a signal, an activity must have two properties. First, it must be easy to observe. Research output, like peacock feathers, is readily measurable. Publications and citations can be counted, journals can be ranked. Second, an effective signal of ability must be easier for a high ability person to produce than a low ability person. For example, jogging is an effective signal of fitness because it’s easier for fit people to jog than for out of shape people. (That strange North American habit of talking about exercise? It’s all signalling.) In the same way, research is an effective signal of ability because it’s easier for a creative person to think of novel research ideas, it’s easier for an analytical person to program a new econometric routine, and so on. 

Teaching just does not work as a signal in the same way…


Jonathan McLeod

Jonathan McLeod is a writer living in Ottawa, Ontario. (That means Canada.) He spends too much time following local politics and writing about zoning issues. Follow him on Twitter.


  1. Trust me, some researchers you do NOT want to have teaching your class. Even if they aren’t writing everything in Chinese (this was for a math course, mind)

  2. It’s as good an explanation as anything else. And it works as a signal because nearly everyone can at least appear to be teaching successfully, but not everyone can appear to be publishing successfully. Sort of a green beard effect.

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