And now for something completely different...

Last summer I spent an extended period doing pure research, for the first time in six years. I had a wonderful time, and discovered a few things about myself and about chemistry.

I worked with an old friend who teaches in a department without a graduate program, but who--unlike me--does have a research lab. He tells me that research can be a frustrating process at a primarily undergraduate institution. It takes time to go from teaching mode to research mode, and by the time things are in full swing the summer is over. Certainly I found this to be true after a six-year layoff: it seemed as though we had just gotten going when we had to quit. Nevertheless, it was a productive summer and I plan to go back.

According to the fashionable model of the teacher/scholar, I should have come back from my sojourn invigorated, chock-full of ideas to communicate to my chemistry students--primarily sophomores in Organic Chemistry, and a few juniors and seniors in Advanced Organic Chemistry. I did come back refreshed, but sadly lacking in new pedagogical or content ideas.

The problem is that the work I did last summer is too advanced for sophomores unless they are research workers, focused on a particular problem. Much of the information we generated doesn't even fit into the format of my advanced course because it's too specialized. Furthermore, I don't have the equipment to convert any portion of last summer's work into a teaching lab, and the chemicals we used are too toxic for teaching laboratories.

My summer's research did benefit my teaching in one way: it provided a break and a thorough mental reorientation. I came back to teaching refreshed. But one is forced to ask whether a different diversion would have accomplished the same thing. For example, short courses are not only invigorating (when well taught, and attended by congenial colleagues) but are designed to directly benefit my students by giving me ideas and topics to incorporate into my courses. And trips to visit my family or my in-laws are not only relaxing and refreshing, but have the advantage of allowing me to spend time with, instead of away from, my children and wife.

Indeed, the glaring problem with the way I spent last summer was that preparation for my fall courses was jammed into about 4 weeks, with occasional stolen moments during the rest of the summer. As for my spring courses, two of them are simply carry-overs from last Spring with minor modifications. The third, which is new to me, required a month or more of shoveling current work--including this essay--onto the "hold" pile, because there was no time for preparation during the summer.

Regular research provides a number of things, some beneficial, some not:

  • Regular research provides a feeling for what works and what doesn't, allowing a more informed critique of the professional literature. This is only true, however, in areas in which one is actually working; for the rest, one gets critical sense by listening to trusted sources and thinking carefully. Furthermore, this sense does not directly or indirectly benefit one's students: they must develop their own nonsense detectors, during their scientific apprenticeships in graduate school or on the job.

  • Regular research provides opportunities for undergraduates to work on projects over a longer term than three hours. However, the use of multi-week and semi-independent projects in the teaching laboratory can have the same benefit in the absence of physical and temporal space for "original research."

  • Regular research provides an excuse to neglect necessary work around the house. This is especially true when one is commuting to someone else's lab, rather than working in a lab of one's own.

  • Regular research provides an excuse to put off the full-time job of preparing to teach properly.
Here's the crux: I can't afford to get too involved in research. Teaching and research are both incredibly labor-intensive occupations, requiring upwards of 50-60 hours per week, and in the top tiers we find many teachers and researchers who simply put their lives on hold for extended periods of time. And success at one in no way guarantees competence at--or even interest in--the other. The myth of the teacher-researcher has been thoroughly debunked, for example in Murray Sperber's Beer and Circus.

Sperber quotes a psychologist at a large research university. When asked whether it wasn't bothersome that huge, impersonal lecture courses in introductory psychology were contributing to a dearth of psych majors, the psychologist retorted, "That's the point. Who wants a bunch of undergrad majors running around the department, getting in the way?"

Faculty at my institution, which stands or falls on its quality of instruction, cannot afford to take that attitude. My colleagues and I are expected to put most of our energies into teaching--preparing interesting problems, grading papers, and maintaining close relationships with students. Our promotion and tenure guidelines reflect this: 50-75% of every tenure evaluation is based on pedagogical quality.

This is not to say that research and teaching cannot be combined. There are a number of excellent institutions, at which teaching is in full flower, where productive research is also expected of faculty. Their secret is that faculty members have ½-time expectations for both teaching and research: they are not held to the same research productivity standard as faculty at, say, Ohio State University, nor to the same teaching-time requirements as faculty at my college. At these institutions faculty can realistically spend 30 or even 40 hours per week on pure research without short-changing their students. And there are and continue to be a limited number of academics, even at first-rate research schools, who excel at both teaching and research.

Most research institutions pay only lip-service to teaching. Star research faculty regularly receive bogus "teaching awards" to perpetuate the myth of the teacher-researcher; but watch what happens in tenure decisions for those who actually put significant amounts of time into their teaching. At most or all such "schools," faculty are rewarded with course reductions!

A few institutions have separate faculty tracks: professors, expected to be primarily researchers, and instructors, who teach full-time--unfortunately, at most such places instructors barely rise to the status of second-class citizens. These places at least claim to recognize that teaching and research feed each other, but not necessarily in the same individual.

Here is the key. It's good to be exposed to research, whether as a researcher or as the colleague of one, to help keep current in one's field and to keep the mind active. With that in mind, and because I had a load of fun doing it, I hope and expect to continue the collaboration begun this past summer.

But research is "something completely different" from teaching, and it's insane to expect every academic to be good at both. Especially when there's only time enough in most lives to do one of them well.


Copyright © 2003 by Daniel J. Berger. This work may be copied without limit if its use is to be for non-profit educational purposes. Such copies may be by any method, present or future. The author requests only that this statement accompany all such copies. All rights to publication for profit are retained by the author.

This essay has been published in the Winter 2003 issue of Phi Kappa Phi Forum.


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