31 ene. 2011

Are Teaching and Research Opposites?

What makes teaching and research opposite things? Let's examine those presuppositions and refute them.

(1) In terms of sheer time and energy, resources devoted to one will not be devoted to the other.

(2) Some people have particular gifts in one area, but not the other. In other words, if you are good in one, you aren't likely to be good in the other.

(3) Teaching involves the repetition of very basic material; research is about finding new knowledge. They pull us in opposite directions.

#1 is a quantitative argument. A heavy researcher at an institution with a lighter load, who is teaching fewer courses, is teaching less, devoting fewer hours to the classroom. That says nothing about the quality of teaching per se. Is the professor with a 4/4 load (four courses a semester) teaching each of these courses better than the research professor with a 2/2 load? Not necessarily. We could say that the teacher with the heavier load is devoting less to each class. After all, we wouldn't say that the teacher with 6 courses a semester is automatically better!

#2 might be true in an extremely limited way. I am sure I am a worse teacher than some who have less prominent research profiles. I'm sure there are those at either extreme, but are those the norm? I know Distinguished Professors who have also won teaching awards. Many of my colleagues who have published widely are very good in the classroom. Some who struggle in the classroom, frankly, also struggle in research. The distribution of "gifts" is uneven, and most people who want to excel in both areas can do so. I do not believe there is a natural tendency for excellence in one area to come at the expense of the other. I'd say, in fact, that excellent colleagues tend to be excellent in more than one way.

#3 is based on a false conception of knowledge. There is no knowledge so basic that it is trivial. Look at Feynman's lectures on physics.

Do you want a professor who has an active mind or not? Do you care more about that than raw pedagogical technique? I've learned from professors who aren't impeccable teachers in all respects, and been bored by those who do nothing wrong in the classroom (except not being interesting in their own field).

We judge teaching by student satisfaction. I prefer to judge my own performance by how much I can get out of the students.

7 comentarios:

Sarang dijo...

Feynman's lectures are a strange case, pedagogically, because they were apparently quite disastrous for the freshmen they were originally inflicted on; nowadays hardly anyone uses them as a textbook, they're really a source of clever ideas and fresh perspectives you can only evaluate once you've learned the material from a more conventional book. At least in physics, a certain kind of idiosyncrasy and cleverness that's prized in researchers really is inimical to effective teaching.

Jonathan dijo...

You would know, being a physicist. I like the idea of a series of introductory lectures becoming a famous book like this.

Michael A. Gottlieb dijo...

Sarang's statement, that "Feynman's lectures ... were apparently quite disastrous for the freshmen they were originally inflicted on" reflects a popular misconception. And while it may be true _nowadays_ that "hardly anyone uses them as a textbook," I think that is equally true of most 50-year old physics textbooks (only, I might add, most of the other ones aren't being read any more, while FLP continues to be popular). Furthermore, FLP was used as a textbook, very successfully, for a decade at Caltech, before it was decided that something more up-to-date was needed. And, finally, with regard to Sarang's statement "they're really a source of clever ideas and fresh perspectives you can only evaluate once you've learned the material from a more conventional book. At least in physics, a certain kind of idiosyncrasy and cleverness that's prized in researchers really is inimical to effective teaching." This is another popular misconception. At least I can say that thousands of freshmen and sophomores at Caltech learned physics using FLP as their textbooks. To read more about popular misconceptions regarding FLP, and their origins, please see:

http://www.feynmanlectures.info/popular_misconceptions_about_FLP .

Michael A. Gottlieb
Editor, The Feynman Lectures on Physics

Jonathan dijo...

Thanks for that comment. I think my original point stands, that a brilliant researcher can make a contribution to pedagogy with no contradiction.

Sarang dijo...

I'm grateful for the clarification; the misconception is extremely widely held. Even granting all that Michael Gottlieb says, though, doesn't show more than that the FLP were _no worse_ than other textbooks, assessed purely as introductory series. Though maybe the original point was that when brilliant researchers think about basic issues they come up with reformulations that are subsequently useful to other researchers -- this seems likely, and is a strong argument for great minds to turn to teaching, as long as the collateral damage to students is not too great.

Michael A. Gottlieb dijo...

Jonathan, your original point stands: a brilliant researcher can make a contribution to pedagogy. Richard Feynman is one example. Landau is another that comes to mind.

Sarang, I don't know what "collateral damage to students" you could be referring to. It certainly is not in evidence at Caltech. But perhaps your statement is a personal one. I would agree that the lectures of FLP are not for everyone.

Sarang dijo...

I'll shut up after this, I promise, but I wasn't asserting (in my second reply) that the FLP in particular _had_ caused collateral damage to anyone. I was just observing that the conditions for #3 in the original post to hold (viz. book is useful to _some_ and not abnormally bad for target audience) are much weaker than those for the claim in Jonathan's comment (viz. book makes a unique positive contribution to training the target audience). I'm aware that you believe the stronger condition holds; all I'm willing to infer from your (highly useful!) debunking is that the weaker condition holds, but this seems a fruitless point to argue further.

For the record I didn't use the FLP as a freshman; I've found them an intermittently useful reference since. I've used, and profited from, Feynman's brilliant but haphazard Statistical Mechanics lecture notes.