Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education, Community Development and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)


For academics, teaching is more important than research: American Historical Association

Today, in the first decade of the 21st century, it is widely assumed that research is a must for Ph.D. graduates who want to pursue an academic career, as well as for university professors who want to sustain those careers. The famous dictum "publish or perish" clearly indicates that academics are pressured to publish work frequently or face grave consequences. It also suggests that scholars are expected to focus on research rather than on teaching if they want to survive in academia.

Interestingly enough, this was not the case during the first half of the 20th century. As historian Chad Gaffield noted in his acceptance address of the 2007 Distinguished Academic Award of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, at that time research activities were modest at best and were not a central focus of institutional or professional attention. Moreover, and interestingly enough given the present climate, teaching activities were regarded as more important than research activities, at least in some fields in North American universities. Gaffield illustrated this point with an example from the academic field of history.

In 1927, the American Historical Association appointed a committee to conduct an inquiry to find out why there was not enough research undertaken by holders of Ph.D. degrees in history. The very name of the group ('The Committee on Preparing a Program for Research and Publication') suggests that the agenda behind this inquiry was to increase research productivity and the dissemination of research findings. The members of the committee were Professors Dana C. Munro of Princeton, Carlton J. H. Hares of Columbia, Arthur M. Schlesinger of Harvard, William K. Boyd of Duke, and Marcus W. Jernegan of Chicago.

The committee circulated short questionnaires to 500 holders of Ph.D. degrees in history who were teaching at the post-secondary level in a great variety of institutions. The questionnaire included ten questions:


Questionnaire for Doctors of Philosophy

Dear Sir:

The Committee on Preparing a Programme for Research and Publication of the American Historical Association wishes to obtain information on the question "Why graduate work in history leads to so little productive research on the part of holders of Ph.D. degrees". You will confer a great favor by replying to the enclosed questionnaire (omitting your signature if you wish) giving your frank and full opinion on the question asked. Please send replies as quickly as possible to Professor M. W. Jernegan, University of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois.

1. What in your opinion is the obligation or duty of a doctor of philosophy in history to teaching on the one hand and research on the other?

2. What is the attitude of the president of the institution where you now hold a position, toward research as compared with teaching?

3. Is the desire to do research work generally lacking, and if, so, for what reasons ?

4. Is the failure to "produce" due to factors that prevent or greatly hinder the desire from being carried out? e.g.: a. Teaching load, number of hours and different courses per week; b. Relation of salary to cost of and time needed for research; as affected by outside work, pleasure, standard of living.

5. Does your college library, or any other depository of historical material in your immediate vicinity, contain sufficient materials for a line of research that could be pursued with profit?

6. Is it true that research is hindered or delayed because of the belief that only a large and important subject is worth undertaking?

7. Is it true that the difficulties of defraying the cost of publication, or fording a suitable medium, are serious influences which hinder research?

8. Would you be likely to produce a particular piece of work if you were assured of a definite grant sufficient to cover part of the expenses of research and publication?

9. Why do so many students make a substantial start in graduate work but fail to take the final degree?

10. Will you add any other reason that you think of that will help to explain why there is no more productive research on the part of holders of Ph.D. degrees?



All these questions were based on the committee's assumption that "the Ph.D. degree in history not only signified that the holder was capable of independent research, but that he was granted the degree with a hope, at least, that he would become a productive scholar" (Jernegan 1927:1). The main finding of the study, based on 260 responses, was that less than twenty-five per cent of the doctors of philosophy in history were consistently producing and publishing research. Jernegan (1927) suggested that this low percentage was similar to the one observed in other academic disciplines.

In releasing the main findings of the study, the committee reported that, in relation to the first question, the opinion was almost unanimous that, given the organization, ideals, and methods of American colleges, the primary obligation of a Ph.D. is to teach.

Regarding the second question (the attitude of the president towards research and teaching), the report of the committee mentioned that, by and large, research was not encouraged by university leaders:

“an analysis of the answers reveals the belief that at least 50 per cent of the Presidents are hostile, or so lukewarm that little real encouragement is given to professors who wish to carry on with research. Either they are told that research is not expected or wanted; or if a professor does produce, no notice is taken of his compared with the recognition given to teaching or to administrative work...” (Jernegan 1927:3).


Professors described the attitude of university presidents with phrases that clearly underline the low attention paid to research at that time. A few examples (see (Jernegan 1927:4) can illustrate this perception among professors:

"He has no conception of research."

"He is opposed to research during the academic year."

"He does not promote on the basis of research."

"He gives no encouragement."

"Thinks my contribution to life much greater if I contribute directly through teaching or committee work."

Among the fifty per cent of college presidents perceived to be favorable or sympathetic to research, there are only few, according to the professors who answered the survey, who do not emphasize teaching as the first duty, and few apparently who make a practice of rewarding research in terms of promotion or salary on the same basis as they do teaching (Jernegan 1927).

Moreover, a particularly interesting finding of the committee’s study was that the emphasis on teaching over research was not only the result of a particular understanding of the different duties (question 1) or the natural outcome of university presidents’ inclination towards teaching and indifference towards research (question 2), but also the personal preferences of academics themselves:

“Most Ph.D.s prefer the human contacts with their students or with their colleagues to the isolation, steady grind, and slowness of reward which are inevitably the lot of the man (sic) who sticks to productive scholarship. In other words, the average doctor of philosophy does not want to be a greasy grind all his life. He has to be till he gets his doctor’s degree, and in many cases, he says, ‘Thank God, I have got it’ and he quits...” (Jernegan 1927:22).

Although this study was undertaken in the field of history, both Jernegan and Gaffield suggest that during the fist part of the 20th century the emphasis of teaching over research, as well as the separation of research and teaching as two disconnected enterprises, were probably present in other academic fields.



Gaffield, Chad (2007). Embracing the New Metaphor for 21st Century Universities. Acceptance Address of the Distinguished Academic Award 2007. CAUT Bulletin Special Supplement, Canadian Association of University Teachers, October.

Jernegan, Marcus W. (1927). Productivity of Doctors of Philosophy in History. American Historical Review Volume XXXIII, Number 1 (October): 1-22.



Daniel Schugurensky, OISE/UT, 2007

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