Research-Teaching: the Fundamental Business of Canadian Universities

by D.M.R. Bentley

This paper was prepared for presentation at the Council of Ontario Universities Colloquium on Research and Teaching at the University of Western Ontario in May 1994 and subsequently delivered to a delegation from the Ontario Council of University Affairs. It has been augmented with materials very kindly supplied by Susan Mann and David F. Strong. My thanks also to Susan Bentley, T.J. Collins, Paul Davenport, William C. Leggett, Kenneth L. Ozmon, Pierre Reid, R.J. Shroyer, A.M. Young, J.M. Zezulka, the 1994 3M Fellows, and the numerous others who have given me the benefit of their ideas and support. The paper was first published in the March 1995 number of the Newsletter of the Association of Canadian University Teachers of English. D.M.R.B.

If not before, then certainly since the publication in 1992 of Jaroslav Pelikan's The Idea of the University: a Reexamination, most people with a strong interest in the current condition and future prospects of the university will have encountered John Henry Newman's famous, false, and almost fatuous distinction between teachers and researchers. "To discover and to teach are distinct functions" and "distinct gifts" asserts Newman in the Preface to the original Idea of a University;

He...who spends his day in dispensing his existing knowledge to all comers is unlikely to have either leisure or energy to acquire new. The common sense of mankind has associated the search after truth with seclusion and quiet. The greatest thinkers have been too intent on their subject to admit interruption; they have been men of absent minds and idiosyncratic habits, and have, more or less, shunned the lecture room and the public school. (8; and qtd. in Pelikan 80-81)

Informing the perceptions and judgements of this passage are two caricatures that contain just enough truth or "common sense" to keep them alive and influential in the popular and even the academic imagination. The first is the figure of the indefatigable and under-appreciated teacher who spends all his days instructing vast numbers of voraciously demanding students, usually at the undergraduate level. The second is the figure of the eccentric and distracted researcher who has an abundance of "leisure" to pursue disinterested scholarship in the company of an élite cabal of colleagues and students, usually at the graduate level. Since he envisages them as such radically different types, it is scarcely surprising that Newman relegates teachers and researchers to separate institutions in his Idea of the University, the former to "Universities" and the latter to "Academies" (8).

The fact that Newman's caricatures do, occasionally, hold true in reality as well as in movies, "television [and] popular literature" (Giamatti 198),1 must not be allowed to blind us to their gross inaccuracy as representations of the vast majority of faculty members in late-twentieth-century Canadian universities. It is a moot and debatable point whether any of this country's institutions of higher learning have ever successfully emulated Newman's Oxford, let alone the Socratic schools upon which he based his pedagogical ideals (and, of course, another vexed issue is whether they should have attempted to do so in the first place). Less open to debate because obvious to anyone with eyes to see is that Canadian universities today are for a variety of historical and sociological reasons both "Universities" and "Academies"—institutions in which faculty members are motivated "[t]o discover" as well as "to teach" by the disciplinary and professional ideals that they themselves have established in their university's Appointments, Promotion, and Tenure documents. No less in Canada than in Britain, the United States, and elsewhere have university faculty members accepted the responsibility and challenge of "combining the advancement of knowledge through research with the extension of knowledge through teaching" (Pelikan 80).2 That a small and often vocal minority of faculty resents the system of rewards and punishments, the proverbial sticks and carrots, that accompanies this quest for balance is a natural, inevitable, and sometimes justified consequence of the incompatibility between high ideals and human nature which should no more be allowed to compromise the ideal than to breed indifference to excellence in one or other of the areas that it seeks to bring into creative conjunction.

Despite the fantasies of many of their founders and architects, the roots of Canada's universities lie less in Britain or France than in the United States and Germany—in the American idea of a liberal or humanistic education and, more to the present point, in the German understanding of the interdependence of teaching and research (see Giametti 41, 129-37). It is because the roots of the Canadian university system lie deep in nineteenth-century German soil that Adolf Von Harnack's famous "statement of faith" at Münster in 1929 can so easily be expanded to include Canada:

Never must our German [and Canadian] universities and institutions of higher learning change their character of being devoted both to instruction and to research.
It is in the combination of research and instruction that the[ir] expressed; [and] this distinctiveness, in which research and instruction mutually fructify each other, would be completely destroyed if this combination were dissolved.... [In some countries] the chief emphasis lies on introducing students to the results of scholarship. But at our universities we want to introduce them to scholarship itself, and to teach them how one arrives at the reality and truth of things and how one can advance the progress of scholarship. (qtd. in Pelikan 84-85)3

So how does one "introduce [students] to scholarship itself"? How does one involve them in the process through which new knowledge and fresh perspectives are developed? How does a faculty member combine "the advancement of knowledge through research with the extension of knowledge through teaching"? No doubt, there are as many answers to these questions as there are students and faculty members. What follows, then, can only be a personal view based on my own limited but, I hope, not entirely idiosyncratic experience as an instructor and researcher in English at Western, a university which for many years has conceived of itself as an institution "devoted both to instruction and research": To quote the relevant section of The University of Western Ontario: Conditions of Appointment: "[t]he criteria for evaluating the candidate's record shall be: (a) Performance in teaching and associated activities.... (b) Performance in research, performance in scholarly activity, and..., where appropriate, performance in the fine and performing arts...[and] (c) Performance in general contributions to the University, the academic profession, and the community... Each candidate for promotion and/or tenure is expected to establish a record of performance in (a), and (b) and in (c). Normally, the significance accorded to (a) and (b) relative to each other should be approximately equal and individually greater than that for (c) (6).4

When I came to Western in 1975, it was made abundantly clear to me that research and scholarship should occupy large quantities of what Newman calls my "leisure" time. But it was also made very clear that the English Department viewed itself as a place in which teaching and learning were to be vigorously fostered among both students and faculty. During my early years as an Assistant Professor, I was assigned an honours course in one of my areas of specialization (Canadian literature) but I was also apprenticed, as it were, to some of the Department's finest teacher-scholars in a variety of general and first-year courses. This was as pedagogically inspiring as it was bracingly intimidating, and I have no doubt whatsoever that the few skills that I now have in communicating ideas to students and colleagues in oral and written form were shaped in the crucible of my early and continued exposure to undergraduate teaching in teams composed of experienced instructors and, later, enthusiastic graduate students. I am sure that I am not alone in noticing how frequently new perspectives and fresh ideas take shape under the pressure of preparing lectures, tutorials, and assignments for honours, general, and first-year courses. There is nothing better than the puzzled look of a first-year student to tell you that an idea is unconvincing or poorly stated. By the same token, there is nothing more exciting than seeing the light go on in an undergraduate's eyes as the result of what you know to be a new idea or a fresh perspective. "The scholar can have no better practice for...writing...books than a continued exposure to undergraduate teaching," observes Pelikan with only a modicum of hyperbole, for the task of "organizing the material of an undergraduate course into discrete units, like the task of dividing the results of an investigation into an outline and individual chapters," requires a great deal of "critical reflection about...hypotheses and generalizations" (94-95). As a Japanese proverb has it: "[t]o teach is to learn."

Of course it would be disingenuous to suggest that undergraduate teaching is the only, or even the richest, source of the sorts of new ideas and fresh perspectives that characterize the most engaging and enduring scholarship in the humanities. In my experience, the most reliable sources of these insights are colleagues, the library, and those chance discoveries that theologians and psychologists attribute to the workings of Providence and syncronicity. "I am a great believer in luck," Stephen Leacock is supposed to have said, "and I find the harder I work the more I have of it." While my own sense of the origin of good fortune is both providential and Leacockian, it also involves a recognition that, thanks to the support of the SSHRCC and Western's Academic Development Fund, I have been able to work intensively and extensively in an area of research—early Canadian writing—that has proved to be fabulously rich in the raw material from which new ideas and fresh perspectives can be minted. To date, the research project with which I am involved—a series of scholarly editions and studies of early Canadian long poems—has produced fifteen monographs and numerous related articles and projects, including several by scholars at other Canadian universities. A critical history of early Canadian long poems entitled Mimic Fires has recently been published by McGill-Queen's University Press, and a seven-hundred page classroom anthology of the same materials—Early Long Poems on Canada—has recently appeared through the Canadian Poetry Press.

In many ways, Early Long Poems on Canada illustrates the interaction between teaching and research that the Canadian university system mandates and encourages. A trial version of the anthology was assembled for a graduate course in Canadian literature in 1989-90; a selection of the poems contained in it was gradually added to the anthology of Early Writing in Canada that has been used in our honours Canadian literature course since the early eighties; and the introductions and annotations to these and other poems in the Canadian Poetry Press Series were developed in response to the views and needs of undergraduate students; that is, the undergraduate students working as research and computing assistants on the Canadian Poetry Project were asked to go carefully through the poems, marking words and phrases whose meaning they found opaque or obscure. As a result of this exercise, the level of annotation in the Canadian Poetry Press Series has seemed too high for some traditional scholars (see Bentley viii), but it nevertheless reflects the established needs of contemporary students for whom classical and Christian materials are much less familiar than they were to previous generations. Without the clarifying interaction between students and faculty that is created by an emphasis on "both... instruction...and...research" the products of the Canadian Poetry Project would unquestionably have been other and lesser than they are.

It scarcely needs to be said that projects such as the one I have been describing have also been productive at the level of graduate research and community service. Since 1987, five M.A. theses at Western have taken the form of scholarly editions of early Canadian long poems, thus providing their authors with an opportunity to place on permanent record their mastery of all the skills traditionally associated with English literary studies, from critical analysis to descriptive bibliography. During approximately the same period, knowledge and experience gained from the project has directly and indirectly enriched the work of several doctoral students who now occupy tenured or tenurable positions at Alberta, Ottawa, Queen's, McGill, Memorial, and other universities. And for its principal investigator and principal student, the Canadian Poetry Project has provided a seemingly endless series of puzzles and opportunities, one of the most productive of which was a reference to Native land claims in an early Canadian long poem,The Rising Village that led to the proceedings of the Supreme Court of Canada, to the decisions of the Marshall court in the nineteenth-century U.S., and, thence, to any group or any journal that would entertain the results of these researches: a motley company that included Western's Senior Alumni Association, the Learning Unlimited group at Woodstock, the Department of English at Dalhousie, and the journals Canadian Literature, and Recherches sémiotiques/Semiotic Inquiry. Of course, one incentive for these research and teaching activities is provided by the University's endorsement of scholarly communication in the local, regional, national, and international forums. More gratifying and motivating, however, is the interest of colleagues and students at all levels—graduate, honours, general, first-year, and continuing—in the perception that early Canadian poetry and today's Native land claims are both deeply informed by ideas about property and social development whose origins lie in the theories of John Locke, Adam Smith, and other seventeenth- and eighteenth-century thinkers. This year I have added The Rising Village to the list of texts to be studied by the three hundred and fifty or so students in my section of first-year English. With any luck, it will increase their awareness and understanding, not only of Canadian literature, but also of the cultural continuity of which it is a part and a reflection.

One final aspect of the Canadian Poetry Project and similar research endeavours needs to be mentioned in the present context, and that is the opportunity they provide for graduate and undergraduate research assistants to acquire usable computing and publishing skills while they are helping to "advance the progress of scholarship." During the academic year and the summer term, the Canadian Poetry Project employs several such research assistants, who learn to perform all the tasks necessary to transform raw documents into publishable books. All the Canadian Poetry Press editions have been produced in this manner, as for the last three years has the journal Canadian Poetry: Studies, Documents, Reviews. As evidence that it is possible, at least on a small scale, to combine the scholarly aims of conserving and advancing knowledge with the utilitarian goal of providing students with usable—indeed, marketable—skills, I can do no better than quote two letters from graduates of the Canadian Poetry Project. The first is from Thérèse Clohosey, who went on to do "freelance work in writing, editing, and designing" after her stint as a research assistant on the Canadian Poetry Project in 1988-90 and now works in the Community Services department at Georgian College in Barrie. "Due to my experience with desktop publishing" [on the Canadian Poetry Project], she writes, "I was responsible for the design and layout of a Resource Kit" for "businesses and industries that are downsizing.... I greatly enjoyed my time with the Canadian Poetry Press and the experience I gained has been invaluable to me. Thank you for providing me with the opportunity to learn more about not only the publishing process but also the rich legacy of Canadian poetry." The second letter is from Donna Fitzpatrick, who worked briefly on "computer software development at Bell Canada" after leaving the Project in 1987 and now runs the office of a Senator in Ottawa. Ms. Fitzpatrick writes that "[w]orking for [the Canadian Poetry Project] was [her] introduction to computers, and "taught [her] the skills [she] needed to compete in the job market":

The time I spent on the Project...was a distinct advantage when I applied for employment. University students in the arts do not have the same opportunities to gain experience in the workplace that science students often do; this was, in effect, a co-op programme...which enhanced the credibility of my time at the university.... I strongly encourage...continued support of projects such as this which allow English students the opportunity to identify particular skills on a résumé, when too often employers cannot recognize the intangible skills an English degree represents.

Ms. Fitzpatrick also states her belief "that working in the academic world helped distinguish [her] from applicants who had only worked in the public sector, or had spent their time at university entirely on their studies." Taken together, the letters and experiences of Thérèse Clohosey, Donna Fitzpatrick, and others like them suggest that so long as Canadian universities continue to foster both teaching and research they will be able to accommodate the diverse and changing needs of their students, their faculty, and the society at large.

Grounded in history, tested by time, and perennially capable of producing new branches, new leaves, and new fruit, the Canadian university is a fertile hybrid of teaching and research that must not be allowed to wither away in the drought caused, in part, by anti-intellectuals of the political left and right who either fail to see its unique traditions and strengths or wish to bend its structure and constituents to their own purposes. Already the narrow and manipulative agendas of certain provincial governments, educational theorists, and faculty associations (or unions) have put enormous strain on the universities' ability to fulfil their research-and-teaching functions. Already these interdependent functions have been split apart by those who equate research with release time and attendance at smorgasbord conferences or teaching with hand gestures and references to Star Trek. Already the intellectual and social lives of present and future generations of students and faculty have been distorted and impoverished. But perhaps it is not too late to repair existing and prevent future damage by affirming once again with Von Harnack that the distinctiveness and fertility of our universities resides in their simultaneous devotion "both to instruction and to research."




  1. "At best," continues A. Bartlett Giamatti, "the popular image of the college teacher ... is that of a rumpled child, fit to tend his grazing herd of adolescents across academic groves but totally lost before machines, money, and worldly temptation.... At bottom these images and their variants show us figures who ... go to class but not to office. They meet neither trains, payrolls, nor the public; what they sell cannot be seen and probably, therefore, does not exist. If it does, it is suspect" (198). [back]
  2. In "Myopia and Mythology: Some Personal Observations on Canadian Approaches to Science and Technology," an address to the British Columbia Science and Technology Fund Annual Reviews on January 16, 1992, David F. Strong treats the separation of teaching and research as one of the pernicious myths embedded in recent thinking about Canadian universities: "What can one say about the idea, most recently perpetuated in Dr. Stuart Smith's Report, that there is a dichotomy between research and teaching which leads to the latter being undervalued...[or the statement in a recent federal document that `the erroneous emphasis that exists today on professors to do research and publish material could also be diminished so that this valuable energy can be redirected to educating the students'? Such ideas ignore two basic truths. Firstly, especially given the rate with which knowledge is expanding today, a professor who is not active and creative in research and other scholarly activity will very quickly become out-dated, `teaching' yesterday's knowledge. If all professors stopped doing research, the university would very quickly be out-dated and out of touch. If all our universities are out of touch, then the whole country is, and we are de facto what we have been described as: `a third-world country living beyond our means.' Secondly, graduate student education cannot come from just `teaching'....It must be done in the best apprenticeship traditions when the student learns by doing, at the side of a top-notch scholar. Otherwise, students will have to learn second- or third-hand from books, which are often out of date when they are published" (8-9). [back]
  3. The York University Brief to the Ontario Council on University Affairs in Response to the Council's Discussion Paper Sustaining Quality in Changing Times: Funding Ontario Universities contains strong arguments for the inseparability of "teaching and research" and urges "Council to reflect seriously that a University without a strong research profile is unworthy of the name" (2). "Even if there were no empirical confirmation of the positive link between research and teaching," continues the Brief, "there are purely philosophical reasons why there should be such a link....Universities exist to train the habits of creative intellectual work, and creative intellectual work requires exposure to the process of research: the asking and testing of original and probing questions relevant to some significant argument, the acquisition of evidence, and the application of judgement appropriate to the evidence and argument. It is these skills, rooted in exposure to the conduit of research programmes, that underly the universities' contribution to economic and social development through the training of creative scientists, professionals and intellectuals. Take away the linkage between research and teaching and you diminish the quality of learning that is central to a university education as compared to other types of secondary and post-secondary learning....Nothing would be more calculated to ensure the universities are unable to deliver graduates with the appropriate research skills than a funding formula that treats teaching and research as two solitudes" (4). [back]
  4. "However, the relative significance of (a) and (b) may be determined by the Faculty Committee on Promotion and Tenure as long as neither (a) nor (b) is excluded. An outstanding individual record in either (a) or (b) may be sufficient reason for promotion and/or the conferring of tenure" (University of Western Ontario 6). [back]