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    Don't Complain About The Teaching At Research Universities
    By Michael White | June 2nd 2008 09:55 PM | 9 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Michael

    Welcome to Adaptive Complexity, where I write about genomics, systems biology, evolution, and the connection between science and literature,

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    Over at Cosmic Variance, Sean tells us that the purpose of Harvard is not to educate people. Lately, there has been a dustup between Harvard, with its fat endowment, and various groups, including the Massachusetts state government, which think that money could be better spent elsewhere. Harvard educates just a small number of students - so what is it doing with all that money? Maybe Harvard could do better things with its money, but as Sean argues, educating more students is not one of them. I'm often asked where I want to work after I finish my postdoctoral fellowship. When I answer that I'm looking for a faculty job at a research university, the inevitable comment I get is "oh, so you want to teach." I don't want to teach. Well, maybe a little, but the primary focus of a professor at a major research university is in fact research. Educating students is useful and good for a healthy university environment, but it is not the overriding concern of a research university. The best science in the world is done at major research universities, where scientists have the freedom and the funding and the time to pursue research programs directed by their own sense of what is worthwhile. Research universities are generally (not exclusively, but almost) the places where the best basic science research can thrive. Some schools are good at teaching and research, but a university can still be extremely successful if undergraduate education takes a secondary role. Harvard is doing what it does best, and it has no reason to be ashamed of not taking more students.

    Comments

    T Ryan Gregory
    And yet look at the people who have been at Harvard. Gould, Lewontin, Wilson, Mayr, Pinker -- all well known for their educational and public communication contributions. Some of the faculty there write textbooks also, and I suspect that being excellent teachers is a significant component of whether someone gains tenure there (getting a job is one thing, but there is a high turnover at places like those). In any event, I wouldn't, uh, mention that you think teaching is less important during any interview... :)
    adaptivecomplexity
    I guess I have a med school bias - I've been at med schools for the last ~8 years, where most faculty give a few lectures in a few different courses at the most, and very few actually teach an entire course the way professors on the Arts & Sciences campus do.

    You're right that many outstanding scientists, very successful in their research, have also been great teachers, and have considered teaching important. I don't dislike teaching, and a university career without any teaching would be impoverished.

    But there is a common misperception among many people outside academia that the primary point of being a professor is being a teacher, but in many cases that's not true, especially in basic science departments at research universities, and in particular medical schools.

    Mike

    Mike
    T Ryan Gregory
    Being a professor of science (as opposed to a research scientist or lecturer) involves three components -- research, teaching, and service. I have a problem when people "teach because they have to" -- if you don't like educating, then what on earth are you doing at a university? :-)
    adaptivecomplexity
    I agree with you - research, teaching, and service are all key components, and a professor should have some interest in all three.

    But not everyone is equally motivated by all three aspects - if you're a molecular biologist, and you love to lecture and interact with undergrads, but aren't that excited about training a lot of grad students and constantly writing for grants, then a position at a liberal arts college, with a heavy course load might be a good fit.

    If you're more motivated to do research, including training grad students and working to bring in a lot of lab funding, and you don't want a big teaching load slowing you down, then you look for a job at a research university.

    Many of my own family members (and I assume much of the general public) don't get the distinction. My Dad is a geochemist at a research university, and I've heard some extended family members suggest that because he teaches 2-3 courses per year, he doesn't have much to do. They don't get that he runs an active lab, which is his primary focus.

    Mike

    Mike
    adaptivecomplexity
    So maybe my post title is bad - students have every right to complain about the quality of teaching at their universities, but people shouldn't complain about the amount of teaching people do at places like Harvard.

    Mike

    Mike
    T Ryan Gregory
    My sense was that the initial question was about quantity, not quality -- Harvard should have more undergrads as opposed to Harvard profs don't have to worry about quality of courses...
    The problem with this (and it is something that I have come to loathe at my particular school) is that teaching is FAR from the job of the average professor at my school.

    The Professors phone their classes in, ill prepared and illegibly presented. They higher TAs at a $10/hour slave wage to grade homeworks and to do the real teaching during office hours, often having exactly no idea who their students are or what their progress in their class is. Then they get exasperated when the students fail to make a connection with them, just do enough to get by, or, (gasp!) act like they don't care!

    And it is the students who get screwed. Of course, there is nothing wrong with research, in fact, I love it, but I have a serious problem with it being funded under the guise of education. Schools get funding with the 'sell' that it will further the education of its students but the truth of the matter is that the professors don't care about the students. If the professors don't want to teach: fine, but don't dilute the educational experience, pretending to care about whether I will get an education for the sake of your research dollars.

    I especially vent my frustration with the administration in my school: our program is far too large, gets far too many new students every year, and spends a tremendous amount of money looking good so that they can generate more research funding that won't benefit the students! It makes me sick. This is a SCHOOL, they need to stop running it like a corporation.

    The end result is that they blow it from both sides: the faculty are motivated solely to get funding (results don't even matter as long as you can keep the money pouring in) and the students don't learn anything, or they learn that they are exactly as valuable as their ability to provide slave labor lets them be and that anything they can get away with they get approval for (with rampant cheating going on in my graduate program). Personally, it has made me bitter and repulsed at the idea of research in academia because the whole concept exists specifically in spite of the students. What a stupid idea!

    I am working in a program this summer with a group of students in a program funded by the NSF. The idea is that the students will get intensive, hands on direction from a Research professor doing research is an area of study that the students are highly motivated in. I will be surprised if the students see the faculty members even half of the time, much less more than once or twice a week.

    adaptivecomplexity
    I phrased my title of this post a little too broadly - students should expect good quality teaching at a research university, but professors should not be expected to do a lot of teaching, since research is a major focus.

    But even if you're just teaching a few classes, they should be taught well - research isn't an excuse for bad teaching. It's unfortunate that you're stuck with bad teaching.

    Personally, it has made me bitter and repulsed at the idea of research in academia because the whole concept exists specifically in spite of the students.

    I disagree though that research universities get funding under the guise of education - in science anyway, funding is awarded to do serious science, and not so much to teach undergraduates. There are separate grants for science teaching programs, but your typical NIH R01 grant (and the analogous NSF one) is aimed at supporting research done by people (grad students and postdocs) who work full-time in the lab.

    Again, like I tried to say in my post, teaching is not the only mission of academia. At a place like Harvard, and especially at US Medical Schools, research is one of the major missions, whether or not it enhances teaching. A University is a place to teach, but it also provides a unique place for basic research, a place where scholars have a lot of independence to choose their research subject and work in a community of skilled colleagues.

    Mike

    Mike
    Ashwani Kumar
    Undergraduate should not be part of a University system which wants to excel unless its a 5 year integrated course. University concept is to excel in fields of research and teaching is secondary. UGC in India has allotted 14 hrs of teaching to a Professor and 16 hrs to a Asst Professor which was earlier 9 hrs to a Professor and 12 hrs to Associate Professor and 18 hrs to a Asst Professor. Now where is time for research left if one has to cover Undergraduate and post graduate classes. Teaching can be left to Colleges and Research to the University system. Earlier there was a clear cut distinction that Universities were research oriented and Colleges were teaching oriented. Now there is flood of Universities which are no more than a teaching college with no productivity or examination conducting bodies like CBSE