Blog Post

Research Is Teaching, Learning Is Theory

This morning I was invited to give a talk on the conflict some junior faculty feel between research and teaching in the academy. The conflict, of course, is that both are incredibly labor-intensive activities and, in the end, there are only so many hours in a day. But I think part of the conflict too is a state of mind: we put so much emphasis on publishing scholarship as the road to tenure, that junior faculty are often shocked to find that teaching counts.

And it does. In fact, at every institution with which I have been affiliated (junior college, large state university, Ivy League school, and now Duke), teaching is the bottom line. But it is often an unspoken bottom line. Too often it is simply assumed that you are an excellent teacher and the scholarship and service to the profession builds upon that. Peer-review focuses on scholarship and that probably skews what is or is not important to the profession. If the teaching is good, then all eyes focus on those letters from peers, letters that (necessarily, because they come from other institutions) focus on publications or performances at scholarly meetings. But when the teaching is poor, it becomes the subject of a lot of discussion in closed faculty meetings among the tenured. More subtly, bad teaching often colors the discussion of everything else. It?s the ?insider secret? of the profession: teaching counts.

If the teaching is weak, a hyper-critical pall is cast over everything else. It is relatively rare that an abominable teacher who is not contributing to the field by training the next generation is rewarded solely for brilliant scholarship. The poor teaching raises deep questions about quality and character, of the person and the scholarship. Is the work really so brilliant? Is it worth it? Our majors are declining. Can we really afford to give one of our precious slots to someone who does not contribute to our shared goals, who does not carry his/her weight? (NB: If you are a cynic, and remain unconvinced by my argument that teaching counts, think of it this way: Senior scholars are not necessarily altruistic; they don't lightly give a pass to someone who makes their jobs harder, no matter how brilliant that junior person may be.)

Interestingly, in most fields in academe with which I?m familiar we don?t spend much time helping graduate students to be more successful as teachers or as scholars. And we rarely underscore the relationship between those two in an overt, uncynical, and therefore productive way. Junior faculty often believe that the time they spend on their teaching hurts their research (rarely do they believe the opposite).

I am increasingly convinced that theorizing the deep structure of teaching is really learning to think about the classroom as the opportunity to learn how to communicate complex ideas to those who do not initially share them. If you can master that translational skill in the classroom, it also improves your ability to transform your research into a paper or a scholarly publication.

I?m not talking about learning to write for non-specialists (as in this blog). I mean any presentation of one?s research contains an element of persuasion. Even when talking to one?s closest disciplinary colleagues (maybe especially when addressing them), one has to find the right way to communicate the new in one?s research. Teaching is a great place for practicing one?s persuasive skills.

Teaching, in and of itself, is a fascinating cognitive, performative, practical, theoretical, and interactive activity. Primatologist Franz de Waal even claims that the only skill humans possess that is not shared elsewhere in the animal kingdom is teaching. De Waal spends a lot of time debunking ideas of the ?specialness? of humans. However, he insists that, except for a pod of killer whales off Chile who teach their young the dangerous maneuver of hunting sea lions by beaching themselves at a certain moment when the tide is changing, other animals do not teach. They simply model and their young imitate what they model. Animals, he insists, do not calibrate their methods, pedagogical goals, examples, and corrections in a way that constitutes "teaching"?a graduated transference of some form of knowledge--in the same way humans do it. De Waal argues that it is teaching (not learning, not language, not symbol-making) that is distinctively human.

 

I believe that great writing is also a form of teaching. Through examples, anecdotes, explanations, graphs, narratives, data, interpretations, theories, and citational practices, writing communicates to the reader, makes assumptions about that reader, and takes time at those places where it is assumed the reader might not normally have proficiency or insight. Empathy is part of writing (as it is all forms of translation) since the skilful writer has to understand what someone else will find opaque about one's own insights and find the best way to give clarity to those important ideas. Teaching helps one to learn where those confusing places are. Often that which is most clear and obvious to me (because it is the focus of my research and my enthusiasm) is what is least comprehensible to you. It's my job--as a writer or a teacher--to close that gap. That's a very interesting cognitive and rhetorical challenge.

 

There is a special pay-off to underscoring the teaching/research continuum for junior scholars, especially those in the humanities and interpretive social sciences where book publication is still the gold standard for tenure. With the demise of independent bookstores, scholarly publishers more and more rely on books adopted for classroom use for sales. They do not want dumb books. They don?t want general books. They want specialized, exciting, adventurous state-of-the-art research and theory that is so compelling that it can be taught. It is difficult to write this particular kind of book. And there is no better way to learn how than by translating your current research (the stuff that makes your heart pump faster just thinking about it) to your students.

And there is no more exciting learning. I hate it when people are snide about those who teach their own work. Sure, you shouldn't be making thousands of dollars in royalties off teaching your own books. But there is something brave about putting your own work out there for the students to read and something valuable about seeing what they learn from and what they ignore. I can think of only one time when I taught one of my own books (it was in a splendid four-student graduate independent study seminar--they taught me, not vice versa!), but I often teach the ideas that excite me at that moment, my current research, and I know that, when it's working, I'm conveying excitement to my students. What is communicated in those settings is not just content but the thrill of learning.

 

I don?t actually believe that teaching content to our students is nearly as important as teaching them how to learn, teaching them the joy of research and the skill of attentive listening and active intellectual engagement with everything they encounter, in the classroom and outside it. A faculty member who brings his or her own research to the classroom and can successfully explain why it is important not only learns some of the persuasive rhetorical and argumentative skills necessary for translating research into a major book publication. That faculty member is also teaching in a fully engaged, human way, and teaching lessons that the student can draw on for a lifetime.

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