Dame Eleanor has a great post up about perceptions of teaching and research and how they are valued – considering how things like personality and institution type determine the ways in which the balance between these two things is perceived . I know I’ve written about the relationship between teaching and research before, but hell if I know where to find it, being such an erratic tagger of posts that I write here and also having all those other posts at my old location. At any rate, suffice it to say that I think I’ve written that the two really are inseparable, at least in my experience both as a student and a teacher.
But so anyway, a lot of great discussion is going on in the comment thread of Dame Eleanor’s post, and I was going to leave a comment over there, except for that I knew it would be way too long because her post got me thinking about some things that are tangential to the question that drives her post. So Dame Eleanor’s big question is this:
Then there were the people I had dinner with, people who work at Ivies or prestigious SLACs, people with distinguished research to their names, who all insisted to each other that teaching is the most important work they do. Do they truly believe this, or is it a sort of defense mechanism with which they protect themselves from doubts about the significance of their research, precisely because their institutions place so much emphasis on it?
As background to the question, she talks a bit about how she sees herself as a scholar first – not an intellectual – and she indicates that while she does invest herself in her teaching, that she does not think that it is the most important or most pleasurable work that she does. But then she goes on to ask:
Again, though, is my present attitude toward both teaching and research a defense mechanism? LRU is an R1, but it is also teaching-intensive, and recent developments are focusing ever more on teaching (in a way that makes me a little nervous). So perhaps I deny that teaching is the most important thing I do for precisely the same reason that my dinner companions affirm it, because of insecurities. They, having fewer students and more writing, hope that human connections matter more than producing books. I, facing large classes in which it is hard to nurture individual connections, take refuge in writing, through which I can address those individuals who share my interests. If I had spent my career at a SLAC, Ivy or near-Ivy, no matter my temperament, would I sound more like my dinner companions?
So since I first read the post, I’ve been thinking about these questions, about whether we value teaching, if we value it, out of insecurity about the value of the research that we do, as well as the inverse. I think that my answer to those questions is no. I don’t think that the discourse surrounding teaching and research is really about compensation or even about self-defense, most of the time. I think that it’s actually about something different and much less psychologically interesting. We talk about teaching and research as an “either/or” – as if one is either “research oriented” or “teaching oriented” – because of the radical differences between these two activities. The problem is that teaching and research, while they have everything to do with one another and while they have the potential to influence each other in productive ways, are not identical, and when we try to talk about them as if they are, then we are forced to choose one as the thing with which we “really” identify.
What I think, though, is that this is stupid. It’s like this: a juicy pork chop has absolutely nothing in common with an apple. One is an animal, and one is a fruit. You don’t prepare them in the same way. Indeed, if you eat one of them raw it can give you horrible food poisoning, whereas if you eat the other, it, according to my mother, keeps the doctor away. One is savory and the other is sweet (well, or tart, but you get what I’m saying). But so with all of those differences, one could say that one is “either” a pork person “or” an apple person, assuming that they stand in binary opposition to one another. Except for that if you do that then what about pork chops with apple sauce?
Just because two things seemingly have nothing in common, it doesn’t mean that they don’t taste delicious together or that they are diametrically opposed. And, frankly, choosing between the two, as if one can’t be committed to both and enjoy both equally – if in different ways – just doesn’t make sense to me. It’s unlikely that one would ever sit down to a meal of pork chops and apple sauce and force everybody around the table to talk about which one was the more fulfilling to them. Nor would they say, “what made you choose that item on the menu – the apple sauce or the pork chop?” So why do we do that with our jobs?
What I would answer, for myself, in response to Dame Eleanor’s post is this:
Teaching is the most immediately fulfilling part of my job. Teaching provides instant, or at least reasonably prompt, gratification. When I teach a class that goes very well, I know it pretty much while it’s happening. When I transform a student’s way of thinking about something, they do things like send me emails or give me presents at the end of the semester, or they keep in touch and tell me what an impact I made on their lives as they go on to bigger and better things. The great thing about designing a new course syllabus is that you can do so in a very short period of time, and you feel like you accomplished something. There is something immediately satisfying about tweaking the assignments that you give to students, and when you get their papers back from those assignments, you see the results of your labor. Additionally, after a day of teaching I feel physically tired, because I have been up and moving around and interacting with so many other people. That feels like work, and things that feel like work also do feel important when we do them – because if they weren’t, why would we do them?
With all of that being said, I do find a great deal of long-term fulfillment in the research that I do, but it isn’t as immediately gratifying. “Thinking” doesn’t feel like work to me. Nor does reading, or even really writing. Solving particular problems in a scholarly piece does feel like work, as does revising, as does compiling a bibliography. But because those activities don’t have an immediate impact on anyone, including me, they don’t seem terribly significant. I guess what I would say is that what feels like work about research doesn’t seem important to me, because really it’s just a means to an end. In contrast, what is meaningful and important about research for me is the ideas – the thinking, the reading, the writing, and then ultimately, way far down the road, when I feel like my work has an impact on my field. But all of that has a very, very long-timeline, and it can all feel very abstract. So this isn’t to say that it’s less important than teaching – I don’t think that it is – but I do think that it is differently important.
I guess to torture my pork chops and applesauce analogy even further, I’d say that research for me is like a six-hour pork roast. It takes forever, and it’s kind of a pain to make, and if you’re starving it is not the thing that you’re going to bother preparing. But once you’ve done it, you taste the delicious goodness and you see how all of the time and effort you put into it was valuable. In contrast, teaching for me is like an apple. If you need a snack, you just take a bite. If you want to get a little more creative, maybe you make apple sauce or a pie or strudel or something. But at the end of the day, pretty much nothing you’re going to do with an apple is going to take six hours, and at the end of the day, the possibilities of an apple are pretty immediate.
So my question is why do we set it up that we’re supposed to identify with either teaching or research? Why do we set it up that we have to reject a major part of what our jobs entail, if not in practice than in spirit? Why don’t the words “professor” or “scholar” encompass both teaching and research? Why do we limit ourselves in these ways – I’d say unnecessarily?