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Teaching and Research

For the last few years, I have been dabbling in academic administration, first as Associate Dean for Research and now as Senior Associate Dean, Education here at the Tepper School of Business.  While there are frustrations in this position (“There are how many courses not covered?  And are all the adjuncts on vacation in Aruba now?”), some aspects are wonderful.  Working with new faculty is a great pleasure,  a pleasure that alone almost offsets the hassles.  I love the excitement and the energy and the feeling that anything is possible.

This was easy on the research side of the organization:  my job was to create a great research environment (subject to resource constraints, of course!), and that was very rewarding to do.  On the education side, my job is a bit different.  While some faculty love teaching, for others it seems to take time away from what they really want to do: research.  How can they do any research if they have to do any teaching?

Teaching is hard, and takes time and energy.  Does it take time away from research?   While I can talk to new faculty about how teaching and research intersect, and how one builds on the other, I can see a fair amount of eye-rolling.  Of course, I would say that:  that’s my job!  And when I explain that the entire “sports scheduling” part of my career happened due to an offhand conversation with an MBA student, the response is a mixture of “That’s what I have to look forward to?  Sports Scheduling?” and “Sure, teaching might be OK for practical types, but what about us theory types?”

Thanks to a colleague (thanks Stan!), I think I now have the perfect riposte.  This is from Richard Feynman‘s “Surely you’re joking, Mr. Feynman!”:

I don’t believe I can really do without teaching. The reason is, I have to have something so that when I don’t have any ideas and I’m not getting anywhere I can say to myself, “At least I’m living; at least I’m doing something; I am making some contribution” — it’s just psychological.

When I was at Princeton in the 1940s I could see what happened to those great minds at the Institute for Advanced Study, who had been specially selected for their tremendous brains and were now given this opportunity to sit in this lovely house by the woods there, with no classes to teach, with no obligations whatsoever. These poor bastards could now sit and think clearly all by themselves, OK? So they don’t get any ideas for a while: They have every opportunity to do something, and they are not getting any ideas. I believe that in a situation like this a kind of guilt or depression worms inside of you, and you begin to worry about not getting any ideas. And nothing happens. Still no ideas come.

Nothing happens because there’s not enough real activity and challenge: You’re not in contact with the experimental guys. You don’t have to think how to answer questions from the students. Nothing!

In any thinking process there are moments when everything is going good and you’ve got wonderful ideas. Teaching is an interruption, and so it’s the greatest pain in the neck in the world. And then there are the longer period of time when not much is coming to you. You’re not getting any ideas, and if you’re doing nothing at all, it drives you nuts! You can’t even say “I’m teaching my class.”

If you’re teaching a class, you can think about the elementary things that you know very well. These things are kind of fun and delightful. It doesn’t do any harm to think them over again. Is there a better way to present them? The elementary things are easy to think about; if you can’t think of a new thought, no harm done; what you thought about it before is good enough for the class. If you do think of something new, you’re rather pleased that you have a new way of looking at it.

The questions of the students are often the source of new research. They often ask profound questions that I’ve thought about at times and then given up on, so to speak, for a while. It wouldn’t do me any harm to think about them again and see if I can go any further now. The students may not be able to see the thing I want to answer, or the subtleties I want to think about, but they remind me of a problem by asking questions in the neighborhood of that problem. It’s not so easy to remind yourself of these things.

So I find that teaching and the students keep life going, and I would never accept any position in which somebody has invented a happy situation for me where I don’t have to teach. Never.

If not teaching ruined the minds of those at the Institute for Advanced Study, imagine the effect on us mere mortals!  So teach, already!  And if you want to teach a bit extra, I happen to have a few courses that need to be covered….

{ 3 } Comments

  1. Tallys | August 18, 2011 at 11:41 pm | Permalink

    Great post! That quote expresses exactly what I feel about teaching. Although I’d be happy to spend some time at a research center like IBM or AT&T, I don’t think I would be happy being a 24/7 researcher for the rest of my life. That was very clear to me at the end of my PhD and I’m happy to have become a professor.

  2. F Marco-Serrano | August 19, 2011 at 4:16 am | Permalink

    As an economist and Adjunct Lecturer I think both jobs get really well complemented. It’s not I’m getting great ideas from alumni, but some really make you think and devise new ways of thinking and explaining old problems. It’s some like re-training your mind. Besides, not being in the tenure track my research is always related to professional projects or, sometimes, leisure (yeah!).

    Even if you guys in the professorship race, I would suggest you remember good research is that one inspired by real life problems. It’s not in the books, either between the walls of your offices.

    PS Mike, if a had a PhD and lived in USA I wouldn’t have any problems in sending you my CV for giving you a hand with those gaps! ;)

  3. Michael Trick | August 20, 2011 at 7:55 am | Permalink

    Anna Nagurney has a nice followup on some research that supports the thesis that teaching helps research: http://annanagurney.blogspot.com/2011/08/teaching-improves-research-in-stem.html

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