[First published in LinkedIn on May 21, 2019]
“Those Who Can, Do. Those Who Can’t, Teach”…Really?
When teaching becomes our daily chore, we are prone to behaving like “copy-paste” consultants focusing more on checking the hours in rather than on improving the #learning experience. Erich Griebling in his 1940 article in The English Journal candidly writes: “… Most of us (teachers) are pretty enthusiastic during our first four or five years of teaching… (and) gradually… we crawl deeper and deeper into the easy maze of routine… (with) our personalities… lost.” Clearly, in some cases, an industry professional’s grievances with academia are justified.
However, during the early twentieth century, that bold statement could have been directed at professors’ meager salaries compared with those of their students. On the contrary, nowadays the statement may very well reflect the resentment against relatively higher wages earned by business professors, especially in developed nations.
Perhaps, years of oft-brutal intellectual criticism that academics face from the anonymous journal referees (and – sometimes – from conference discussants) helps academics develop a “thicker skin.” As a result, one does not often see many formal academic retorts to this statement. Yet, academics are not indifferent to the issue.
As a professor, it would be pretentious to say that I do not want to react. So, allow me to dissect a few possible arguments that lead some practitioners to repeat, under their collective breath, Griebling’s statement:
1. “Teaching is easy”
Indeed, teaching can be easy; but for those who work hard to make it easy for themselves (and those who have some natural pedagogical instincts). For the rest, it is an uphill battle – at least – for the first few years. Teaching delivery at B-schools is an art, not much different from music or theater. Would you risk trying a performance on stage without preparation? Teaching business courses, in particular, requires one to stay abreast with market trends and be comfortable with the ever-evolving analytical framework (in academese: playing simultaneously with “relevance” and “rigor”). Some are naturally good at one. Some at the other. Yet, the balance between the two is difficult.
Knowledge of the subject matter – well beyond the scope of the curriculum – is only one pre-requisite to being a good pedagogue. Teaching is also, and more importantly, about how we disseminate the knowledge. One may have seen some blank-faced guest speakers in front of students when asked to “teach” something, simply because they underestimated the challenges of the task. The student in front of you is smart. She is eager to know from you what she does not already know.
As I select my guest speakers (practitioners) carefully, they have always proven to be phenomenal presenters (and many, as teachers).
2. “It’s best to learn from industry practitioners”
Managers from the industry are the protagonists of business education, without any doubt. Enlightened practitioners teach the next generation from their successes. Failed practitioners teach what not-to-do (often through business case studies; Not in-person). Without engaging the successful practitioners, a course is incomplete.
However, a successful B-school will create a fine balance between practitioners and professors in delivering the curriculum.
Practitioners are a reflection of the industry. They show how things are done; Which is an important goal of business education. However, business school students are also looking for (or, at least, must be exposed to) a critical view on how else could things be done better.
Besides, teaching a majority of business topics require specific pedagogical skills. If the aim of education is to improve the world, academia addresses this need by presenting counterfactual scenarios which may or may not even be practiced. A blind respect for “this-is-how-it-is-done” germinates the infamous “herding” behavior which may lead to catastrophe. No doubt, several innovative enterprises have been successful in this goal of training their own work-force as well. But even there, the trainers have to be skilled in the art of training.
So, a more valid question to ask is whether the traditional university setting is the only effective method of teaching; Not whether teachers are important or not.
3. “Professors have too much leisure”
Actually, professors have an immense workload. The classroom hours are just the tip of the iceberg. Each class session requires preparation. Each class discussion is physically and mentally exhausting (no matter how much a professor loves her area). Course design, revision, content development, session planning are all necessary ground work. Trying to deliver an effective learning experience to students with consistently varying expectations takes its emotional and physical toll. Then comes the question of creating exams, retake exams, case studies, exercises, projects: mastering them all and grading them all. Besides, a professor is scrutinized by a large number of students, supervisors and other stakeholders with expectations that are often different, if not outright contradictory.
On the top of all this, most university professors also have serious research commitments. The research goals (i.e. “publishing in ultra-picky peer-reviewed journals”) are vague and the path to reach the goal is thorny, long, hazy and lonely.
The ever-growing pressure may not be visible, but it claims a large part of a professor’s routine. That routine includes, but is not limited to: earning research grants, serving on various committees, supervising student internships, dissertations and ad-hoc coaching sessions, providing career support to students, and completing mundane administrative tasks.
Prof. Julian Diaz rightly put it (and I paraphrase): Professors do not have more leisure time, but they do have some discretion about what they want to do with their time. This discretion is what they have earned through years of hard work.
4. “Research is useless, if we cannot apply it”
Business competencies are – essentially – applied sciences (and arts). Therefore, the need for applied research is real. It is also true that at several research-focused institutions, professors give research output higher priority, to the detriment of teaching quality. I personally believe that a research professor owes it to society to present his research findings in an accessible language, even if the core topic is theoretical or esoteric.
However, the premise that academic research is useless could not be further from truth. For a community, focusing solely on applied-research is myopic at best and self-destructive at worst. The human race has evolved because of its intellectual pursuits. Creating new knowledge is a rigorous process that is under strict scrutiny. It has always been so. The process is tedious and slow. But it helps us to take yet another step forward towards progress.
A world without academic research would become chaotic. Just because one does not see a major, short-term application for the research she is conducting at the time does not mean said research is worthless. Einstein’s theory of relativity was purely academic. But several decades later, we have started using it in our GPS systems. Statistics suggest that the more a growing nation invests in research, the faster it grows.
5. “Academic career is not a preferred choice”
It is true that academia is not a preferred career choice among most young business students. Sometimes this lack of interest is due to their genuine passion for entrepreneurship and wealth. Sometimes, it is simply a result of indifference due to a lack of orientation.
However, this argument stems from a notion that an educator’s paycheck is miserable. Unfortunately, nations where professors are poorly paid are less competitive, in general. Countries that value their educators are more prosperous. In more sophisticated higher education systems, surviving a PhD program – only to then cope with the pressures of an academic job – is a challenging task.
“ Follow what a professor says, not what he does!”
Many professors, indeed, have never worked in the industry. Others built a successful career in the industry and then either got disillusioned, or found an overpowering interest in intellectual pursuits. Many of them continue a strong engagement with industry through consulting projects. Yet, doing (also) what a practitioner does is just the icing on the cake. A professor’s fundamental goal is to create/disseminate knowledge which eventually nurtures successful managers. If they are achieving this goal, they are already “doing” what they do the best.
In fact, most professors enjoy the task of teaching. Grooming the leaders of the future is an immensely satisfying task. Those with research responsibilities further strive to question the status-quo, and for good reasons.
I vividly remember this important episode of my career. “Those Who Can, Do. Those Who Can’t, Teach”, ranted a fund manager during an event organized by my university. That young PhD scholar (and soon-to-be-professor) heard it (yet again) and was visibly agitated. He says to his mentor, in private: “Professor, doesn’t this statement often come from attention-seeking wannabes? …And how could those professors standing in the room stay silent?”
What I cannot forget is the calm, reassuring and a rather deep reply from one of my favorite professors of all time: “My dear, it is not their job to understand us. It is our job [as academics in a business school] to explain their behavior.” This article, perhaps, is an endeavor in that direction.
Image courtesy: Unsplash (with Creative Commons license). Thanks to Alex Jones, Reginar, Geronimo Giqueaux, Carl Heyerdahl, Michael Parzuchowski, Mikael kristenson & You X ventures