Thursday, March 01, 2007

Researchers as teachers

I've been away from blogging for the past month, as I've been focused on getting two research grants submitted by a March 1 deadline. Yes, that's today, and they're both done.

I've been neglecting not only this blog, but also the students in my classes, as a consequence of caring more about my research than about my teaching. I originally wrote 'as much about my research', but that's not true - I do care more about research than teaching. But I'd like to think that caring about research makes for a good teacher, maybe better than someone who cares only about teaching.

Being taught by scholars (researchers in the science or humanities or whatever) is one of the supposed benefits of studying at a real university rather than at a college where the faculty have little or no time or facilities for scholarly work. The benefit is (should be) that the teachers are people who DO research. We care deeply about intellectual work, about scholarship, and we can communicate about the process from our ongoing experience. Active research also keeps us at the frontiers of knowledge, and gives us the perspective to make value judgments about what's in the textbooks.

The down side of this is that we're unlikely to be as dedicated to teaching as our non-researcher colleagues (at UBC, 'sessional lecturers' and 'instructors'). I, for example, have been skimping on my teaching responsibilities for the past couple of weeks, to get my grant proposals done.

But this isn't because we don't care about learning. I, and every researcher I know, care much more deeply about learning than the great majority of our students do. We LOVE learning - it's our favourite thing in the whole world. But we love learning as a concrete activity, experienced most rewardingly in the research we do, not as an abstraction. So it shouldn't be surprising that we value our own learning activities (our research) more than the learning activities of our students.

1 comment:

yajeev said...

I think there is a significant problem in education at both 'colleges' and 'universities' that goes unaddressed at most institutions: teaching professors (be they primarily teachers or researchers) are not adequately trained as teachers.

I am a graduate student, my wife a graduate student and a gifted educator. While in college, we often lamented the fact that while we were 'learning' from brilliant minds, experts in their fields, though often enthusiastic, most professors knew little to nothing about education... which was their primary responsibility. How much less do professors at research-intensive universities (typically) know or care about methods of instruction, different learning styles, or assessment mechanisms.

Clearly, a significant portion (most?) of the burden for learning material is on the student, who ought to motivated, hard-working, etc. etc. etc... However, it seems to me that both "researchers as teachers" and "teachers as teachers" ought to have some basic training in educational theory and practice.

I am not a bitter college student or graduate student. I thoroughly enjoyed my college experience and am satisfied with my graduate experience thus far. However, in college, I was probably in the top percentile in terms of self-motivation to learn, ie probably the exception.

More should be expected of students in college than was in high school (as more is expected in high school than middle or elementary school), and much more in terms of independent learning is rightfully expected from graduate students. It just seems to me that when students (and very often parents of students) are paying such hefty costs for a college 'education', they deserve instructors who are both experts in their fields and trained educators.

Additionally, while it has been most useful to me as a graduate student to have my professors integrate their research into their lectures, I think it is less critical for undergraduates, where the most imporant thing is to ensure that they learn the fundamentals of the topic they are learning about (in order that they may fully appreciate the topical research applications).

Probably professors who blog about educational practice and theory, are exceptions... they're clearly interested in thinking about teaching.