Teaching, Research, and Teaching Research

Melissa at Confused at a Higher Level has a nice post on the tension between faculty research and teaching:

Malachowski writes, "We all know that working with undergraduates is time consuming and in some cases it slows down our research output, but work with undergraduates should be supported, celebrated, and compensated at a high level. For most of us, the process involved in research with students is as important as the product." If colleges adopt a narrow definition of scholarly productivity measured only by publications, they may unintentionally provide incentives for faculty not to include undergraduates. As a junior faculty member, the tension between trying to get results in a timely manner and investing time in student researchers has been palpable for me. I enjoy and prioritize working with students in my research projects (and the students I work with are wonderful contributors). However, as I talk with junior faculty at other primarily undergraduate institutions, there is a broad spectrum of how much institutions value student involvement in faculty scholarship and how much the faculty reward structure is oriented towards publications. I appreciate undergraduate institutions that take a big-tent approach and recognize that there are many results from faculty research beyond peer-reviewed publications, one of the most valuable being the undergraduate students who have gained research experience and take that experience with them to their future careers.

(This is in response to a paywalled op-ed in the CUR Quarterly that I can't access.)

This is something that faculty at small colleges struggle with all the time. On the one hand, we need to do research to get tenure, and to stay connected with our fields. On the other hand, we need to educate our students, which includes teaching them how to do research. And teaching students to do research necessarily involves a lot of very slow progress, as they find their way around.

These two missions are often in conflict. I could make faster progress in the lab if I chased my students away and did everything myself, but then they wouldn't learn anything. Of course, when there are stretches of time when I can't get in the lab at all, this means that progress tends to grind to a halt. Finding the right balance is a really difficult thing to do.

I don't have any brilliant solutions to offer, though I'm happy to hear some if you have them-- please, leave a comment with a brilliant solution. I just wanted to note this, because it's something that's been on my mind recently, and it's nice to be reminded that it's a universal problem (for values of "universal" restricted to undergraduate institutions).

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As a chemist, it's possible to strike a nice balance by training a student to work in the lab for a semester (or a summer, if that's a possibility), then releasing them into the lab with less supervision (supervision mainly for safety's sake) for subsequent semesters.

The research that gets done may not be the highest quality (I've repeated many experiments that don't work when done by an undergrad) but progress is made and students learn about independence in the lab.

Pardon the hijack, but today's XKCD
belongs in your blog roll as well as in your new relativity book!

On the topic of your comment, the important thing is whether that educational role is acknowledged by (A) your college administration and (B) your grant reviewers. The up side of undergrad research can be huge and, sometimes, unmeasurable. In one instance the result was that the student ended up with a dream job that didn't even become a dream until after having that particular research experience.

By CCPhysicist (not verified) on 21 Oct 2010 #permalink

This is a universal problem, with values of universal extending beyond UG institutions. It also may be also slightly worse for theorists, because the work load scales differently with the number of students, for theorists and experimentalists (I have the impression that for you guys there is a sub-linear regime, which I donât think is an option for me).

With my graduate students, I expect a "payback" in the sense that eventually more work will be done working with them than if I did everything myself. I don't think I've ever experienced that payback with undergraduates, but I still hire undergrads to work in the lab because that's part of my job, as I understand it.

Now if only I could get the senior grads to teach the new grads and undergrads (as it was in the places where I did graduate work) then I could spend all day smoking my pipe in the faculty club. But since my institution doesn't have a faculty club...

My usual conundrum with the students is a related one: striking a balance between letting them figure things out themselves vs. doing a lot of backseat driving. When I first started I think I worked with the students too much; now I'm trying to let them do more on their own. It's a hard balance to strike.

By Anonymous Coward (not verified) on 21 Oct 2010 #permalink

For most pure mathematicians and I suspect for a fair number of theoretical physicists, the solution is almost forced upon us. Most mathematicians in this situation end up with two fairly separate streams of research. One stream is highly technical and cannot be understood by anyone without two years of graduate work in the subfield. This stream gets published in journals and contributes to the field. The other stream is research which is accessible to and done with or by students. This stream, though original work, is uninteresting to the scholarly community at large and gets published only in journals which specialize in publishing work by undergraduates and are never read by anyone (except graduate admissions committees).

Only for a few lucky mathematicians thinking about the right questions at the right time do the streams every join, probably only for a project or two before splitting again. The vast majority of questions in pure mathematics of interest to the scholarly community are incomprehensible to someone without a couple years of graduate study, and most (though not nearly as overwhelming a majority) undergraduate research contributes exactly zero to anything any other person (other than the advisor's next research student) would care about (though that is also true for the research of many math professors).

In other words, student research ends up not being research but rather an alternative form of teaching. The question you pose is reduced to the old question of balance between research and teaching.

By Alexander Woo (not verified) on 21 Oct 2010 #permalink

Well, typically the department gets money per student, no? That's an incentive of some sort. Other than that, I'd say the reward is in seeing your students succeed - at least some of them. And, who knows, in 2 decades they'll be the ones who tell you what's to do next ;-) In any case, it's a tension that's as old as mankind and nothing specific to academics. Certainly your kid would get dressed faster if you'd do it. But then they'd never learn anything. And who knows in 3 decades they'll be the ones dressing you...