Sunday, July 1, 2007

The teacher and the researcher

One fact that I suspect becomes apparent to most philosophy instructors fairly early in their careers is the intellectual canyon between the climate of philosophical research and the climate of philosophy teaching. Teaching as I do in a large, moderately selective public university with no graduate program, my teaching obligations almost entirely involve introductory courses (either introduction to philosophy or an introductory practical ethics course), historical surveys, or courses that survey a philosophical subdiscipline (e.g., ethical theory). In these courses, it's rare that the course content intersects with my own research in a very direct or substantial way, and I suspect this is true for most of us: It's the exception when our research and our undergraduate teaching inform one another in profitable ways. Whereas in ethical theory courses, I strive to help students understand Kant's categorical imperative and some of the principal objections to it, my research might concern replies to the objections to the objections, etc. So not only is there relatively little contact between our research and teaching in terms of content, but the level of sophistication in research in much higher than in our teaching.

I imagine that those with graduate teaching duties don't experience this. My concern is not that teaching requires 'dumbing down' the material. (I don't think it does.) My concern is that there is a kind of built-in professional schizophrenia to the profession, where two of the main activities — teaching and research — operate in different worlds, whereas it would be nice if these could be mutually reinforcing activities.

So do others share this experience, and have you changed your approach to teaching (or to research) in response? Are there ways of integrating our own research into our teaching so as to bridge the gap between these two ventures?


  1. My experience has mostly been that it is difficult to incorporate research into teaching at an undergraduate level.

    In part it is simply the demands of undergraduate courses, broad surveys of vast areas do not suit research which is often specific, focused and in depth.

    Another part I think is that at the undergraduate level the students often don't have the skills (yet) needed to really engage with research and understand the subtle points that maybe being made.

    I'm reminded of two very different lecturers who I tutored for at a former university. One of which taught first year students as they would post-grads there was no mercy. And to be honest little understanding, they just took things too high too far too fast. The other lecturer in contrast excelled at explaining things simply and building up to complicated theories. But they weren't that good at postgraduate teaching, mostly because you got spoon fed a wee bit too much.

    Personally for me postgraduate teaching has been more closely aligned with my research interests and I suspect that it would be the same for most.

    The closest I've come to using my own research in undergraduate courses has not been in the lecture but in the tutorials. These tend to be more free flowing and sometimes discussions get to a point where you can draw on your own research to push things. But this would be the exception not the rule.

    Cheers David

  2. Michael - my situation is similar to yours: lots of survey and introductory courses, little overlap with research. (In the not too distant future, maybe next year, I'm hoping to teach graduate courses. It will be interesting to see whether that makes research easier).

    There are though Consolations Of Teaching Philosophy. In order to get research published, these days, you need to emphasise differences - how is what you are saying different from anybody else, and this means poking around details, objections to objections to objections. Being different matters more than being right, and narrowness is necessary.

    Every time I teach Intro to Philosophy, I include a section on Philosophy of Mind. This is not my field, but I know what theory I favour - hylomorphism/functionalism as championed by Putnam and Nussbaum. I'm in agreement with Bonjour that hylomorphism provides a solution to problems of a moderate rationalist epistemology, which I also happen to favour. Every time I teach this section of the course, my own thinking on these related topics becomes a little clearer. I have tried to turn this into a research paper, but without success - I'm simply supporting theories that other people have already advanced, and I haven't done the in-depth work that would enable me to contribute a new detail. But, as a full-time teacher, I'm under no obligation to try to do that.

    I suppose what I'm saying is that, although teaching certainly can be a distraction from doing philosophy, the demands of publishing research can also be a distraction from the real pleasure of philosophical teaching.

    I'd still prefer to be able to do more research and less teaching, but these thoughts at least provide some consolation.

  3. A further comment, if I may.

    At the Small Liberal Arts colleges where I work, I have suggested that there's an important, but blurry distinction between scholarly activity and research.

    By 'research' I mean the kind of thing that would enable you to be hired, or receive tenure at a Major Research University: a research article in a peer-reviewed journal or a monograph, for example. Scholarly activity would be conference papers, book reviews, newspaper articles and so on. Of course, there are obvious borderline cases.

    The reason for the distinction is that in a SLAC, with a large teaching load, many faculty won't be able to manage more than scholarly activity. It contributes to the institution, is evidence that one is doing more than preparing classes, and should be evaluated positively. But to class it as equivalent to research, as defined above, would be to over-rate the significance of this kind of work in the scholarly world.

    I did take some material from an undergraduate class and turn it into a twenty minute conference paper. Since I was presenting a paper at the conference, albeit not in one of the main sessions, my university paid more money than had I merely been attending - almost enough to cover the cost of a transatlantic flight. I don't pretend that this conference paper would count for much in a job interview, but it was one of the highlights of the year for me, and at least there's something on my CV other than classes taught.

  4. I can only speak as an undergrad, but being aspiring philosopher I would like to share some of my thoughts on the topic of this post, in particular since aspiring philosophers must take into consideration the fact that they must teach others philosophy one day this question has entertained my thoughts in the past. I believe that the original question raised can also generalize to the relationship between the philosopher and the general public, or at least the general public who read. Worries can be raised between the research of the philosopher and the teaching of one's research to the general public.
    Now and again one sees in the preface of a philosophy book an author's aspiration to reach the "lay reader" and I wonder if this goal even gets accomplished? For example, if I recall correctly, in the opening pages of Unger's relatively recent published book, All the Power in the World, Unger writes that he hopes to reach the general public or lay reader, but again I wonder if this will ever be a realistic goal. At 670 pages and a hefty hard cover price I think that Unger, despite all his ingenuity, has set himself a real challenge. I have yet to come across his book in a local bookstore, and I can hardly imagine a day when one walks into a book store and sees forty copies of All the Power in the World in a nice storefront display, and a sign nearby alerting customers of a book signing. I do not mean to devalue his book, I am just using it as an example among one of many philosophy books that attempt at relevance and importance, I would love to see a philosophy book by Unger or say van Inwagen, on the New York times best sellers list, but I don't ever see that happening. Of course any academic field can lament the lack of public interest, all that I am saying is that I think is is important for philosophers to discuss how to cope with this problem. It seems that there will always be a gap between the teacher and the researcher, and likewise there seems that there will always be a gap between the philosopher and the general public, and I think that it is important to discuss how philosophers and aspiring philosophers ought to proceed.

  5. I've actually found my undergraduate teaching and my research intersecting regularly. When I teach undergrads (including lower-division students) on topics on which I do research, I've found that examples I've come up with in research can be very valuable to illustrate ideas to undergrads. I've also found that teaching has sparked several ideas for things I'd like to do research on. And there have been many times where something I've been working on in my research has come up naturally in class (usually upper-division, but not always), and so affords a nice opportunity to discuss it (this also allows students a glimpse into the mysterious world of professional philosophical research). So while of course my research has been very intertwined with and informed by graduate seminars I've taught, the difference between those courses and my undergraduate courses is a difference only in degree, not kind.

    But I should mention that by far the most important relation between teaching (undergrads) and my research comes in the way my actual writing has been informed by my teaching. It is essential when teaching undergrads that one present the material as clearly as possible, and the techniques I've developed for that in the classroom have worked wonders in making my own writing more clear and accessible.

  6. I guess my experience is more like David S's than David H's or Ben's. Of the six courses I teach a year, 4 are GE service courses, 1 is an upper division philosophy of religion course, and usually 1 is a special topics course. It's pretty easy to have interaction between the special topics course and my research, as I usually teach it on something that I'm writing about. The philosophy of religion course is a survey course, but while I cater it to those issues that I'm most interested in, there isn't as much interaction with this one. Finally, the GE service courses have the least interaction with my research--but even here I like David S's suggestion that research examples can help explain things in the classroom. I've also found the converse to be the case, where the classroom has helped me see the best example to use, or a better way of putting a complex point.

    This said, I have written conference papers and response papers (at least one of which has been published) where the central idea came in from a class discussion or lecture.

    Another way that I try and get the two to interact as follows. Say I'm planning on writing a paper in a slightly new area, X (I'm going on my fourth year of teaching, and so am still broadening the range of topics that I write on). I'll ask to teach a special topics course on X. While reading and preparing for that course, I'll write an encyclopedia article on X (I've done this twice for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, which is a great teaching resource by the way). I'll then use the encyclopedia article during the course, which helps the students see how the two parts of my job relate. And both the course and the article give me a pretty solid base from which to then focus my purely scholarly writing on X.

    I find that doing this as much as possible helps cut down on the 'professional schizophrenia' Michael mentioned in the post.

    I also wonder if the stage of one's career (recently out of graduate school vs. tenured professor) makes a difference here. Perhaps the longer one teach, the less opportunities there are for the kinds of interaction I mention above?

  7. Per Kevin's last remark, I actually think the opposite: the further you get from grad school, the more interaction there is likely to be. When you're just out of grad school, you're likely working hard on publishing from your dissertation, which is likely a fairly narrow topic, one you're probably not teaching in your first job, which usually has you doing lots of intro stuff. As you prepare for those courses (and usually a lot of them), you want to draw on whatever resources are easily available, which tend to be those notes you wrote from TAing an intro course in grad school. So the twain hardly meet. As you get further away from grad school, though, you're better able to allow the one to influence the other: you pick topics to write on that interest you, which can easily come from ideas that occur in the classroom or in prepping for the classroom. On the other hand, as you're doing your research, the examples and clearer expositions you work on can inform your teaching.

  8. That's encouraging, David! I hope you're right.

  9. Great responses ... I'm curious about how students perceive the instructor when the instructor's own research gets introduced into the class. (I have in mind actually referring to one's own work as one's wn work, so that the students know you're referring to your own research.) An analogy: I often think of teaching as being a tour guide in an exotic city. I help the students navigate the intellectual terrain, pointing out the landmarks, explaining why they're landmarks, etc. This has the advantage (if you're a good guide) that students get a fair and reasonably thorough picture of the city. On the other hand, it conceals the fact that as a researcher, you're contributing to this growing city and that you care enough about the city to want to contribute to it. So what effects would students knowing the latter have on their conception of the instructor? Will they mirror the instructor by becoming less dispassionate and more engaged (since your research indicates you care, they might care more also) -- or are those gains offset by students' perceiving the instructor as less objective, as an interested party with an agenda?

  10. I'd agree with David S, in my first 'proper' lecturing job the first year I taught I inherited a post graduate course whose topic had already been set (and in part taught, but that is another story). That course only somewhat aligned with my research interests (although I did get a paper out of it in the end).

    The second year I was able to change the course so that it much more closely aligned with what I was interested in.

    I like the analogy Michael and it is a very interesting question. My suspicion is that it will have both effects, some will become enthused and some will become suspicious.


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