That’s my perception at least.
I would bet that if you asked a sample of research-active academics if they could give up undergraduate teaching and focus on research, the vast majority would do so in a heartbeat. I think that most academics see undergraduate teaching as a chore that they could do without.
The problem is that very few academics are natural teachers that are truly passionate about what they do. That’s hardly surprising because you get to be an academic largely on the basis of research achievement. Having to teach is the price you pay for being able to continue your research career. And most academics love doing research.
Many academics will claim to enjoy teaching and perhaps they would in an ideal world where teaching loads were light and the fatigue hadn’t set in. But the reality is that many have very high teaching loads leading to an element of burnout. Teaching, especially lecturing, is an almost uniquely draining activity (although nowhere near as much as secondary or primary teaching) – the exposure, the need to ‘perform’, the repetitive nature of it, the increased demands for supporting materials.
On the contrary, research is an extremely enjoyable activity even if there is an increasing amount of ‘hassle’ involved. It is a privilege to able to engage in bit of personal creativity and to be able to contribute to the sum of human knowledge. There is just something inherently satisfying about trying to make sense of a new set of data or of the results of a simulation. Research is also a very ego-driven process. Academics are, by nature, pretty competitive, and research gives us the opportunity to show our academic prowess to our peers. Universities are quite judgmental places and the way people are most judged is on the basis of their research output.
This preference for research pervades the entire academic system. It leads to a hierarchy of importance in the minds of managers and leads to staffing policies that in my view are simply unsustainable. Many of the senior managers in universities have a natural bias towards research achievement. The view seems to be that research performance is a much better marker of a person’s ‘management’ potential than is teaching. Perhaps it is; who really knows? So, in a time when universities are making ‘initiatives’ of all kinds, those with an excellent research track record are often dragged away to ‘head up’ all sorts of centres and institutes, not exactly ‘kicking and screaming’ in the process. And who can blame them really. There comes a time when people want new challenges and moving away from the teaching coal face is an entirely understandable and human response. The problem though is that the ‘secondment’ of such staff leaves large gaps behind, gaps that are not easily filled.
There are times when, I admit, I dread walking into a lecture. But it is often on those occasions that I am most upbeat afterwards. I suppose I realise after all of these years that no matter how much I might be dreading a lecture, there can be something curiously invigorating about lecturing or laboratory teaching. It is often on days when I am least expecting it that I leave a lecture in a state of mild elation. And so I largely keep the faith. But when I look into the future and see a third level system with decreasing core teaching staff, increasing teaching loads, increased student numbers and less time to indulge in a bit of research creativity, I just wonder what I would do if a new opportunity came my way. Would I happily ditch the teaching?