Sunday, October 26, 2008

(Teaching vs. Research) vs. (Teaching and Research)

Many of my academic friends who blog have blogged in the past on the issue of Teaching and Research. I have participated in the comments on these. It is my humble submission that those who are primarily engaged in research actually do not really understand or appreciate how much it takes to be a good teacher. Often the arguments run that those in Research Institutes who are not doing great work and are somehow falling behind could be farmed off to Teaching Institutes. In fact one could write a farcical counter-proposal to this as follows: "X was hired to to a teaching Institute. Over the years X started getting really sick of students and teaching. He found that he does not find students questions and grading interesting any more. The Head of the Department summons him and says that we are aware that you once did some research also. In your graduate students days you held a research assistantship and even wrote a couple of papers. Now that you are really falling behind in teaching, maybe you should seriously consider a change in career and take up research in one of our premier Research Institutes. After all, all these years in a teaching environment would have given you special skills to deal with unpredictable situations that could arise in a research environment." Now back to reality after a few moments with farce: It is only recently I have come to discover how hard it is to hold the attention of students for a semester, leave alone a year. Not that I have not taught before; in fact I have been teaching for over a decade, not counting years of teaching assistantships during graduate student days. Recently I have been teaching some additonal classes as students wanted to learn about some advanced topics, not connected to the course I teach. The patience that is needed to prepare for lecture after lecture, make up homework assignments, conduct tests and exams, see students off and on is almost superhuman. Furthermore, if one's mind is so preoccupied, how is it possible to really do research? The magnitude of work required to do a good job of research is also awesome. Maybe it is only superhumans who can do a good job of both at the same time?


gaddeswarup said...

I have been through this discussion with myself before. It may not apply to others but here is my story.
I basically studied by myself, picked up my own area and topics. I was lucky to be in a good institution with facilities. There were bright people to talk with and I did not want any guidance and they let me do what I wanted (you can read a bit more about this from my post 'Remembering Fr. Racine'). Things seemed to be going well and I even tried to help a couple of people who were struggling. Slowly, I found that I was not getting ideas all the time and observed some older people. They seemed to be going through the motions and always had time for a chat and gossip and I was afraid that I would become a vegetable if I stayed on. I made attempts to move to a university but at that time, about 40 years ago, the facilities were poor and politics many. Slowly I moved out of India and after another attempt to return to India settled finally in Melbourne.
With my background in a research institute, teaching was hard. Students always seemed below par asking for examples whereas it was all clear to me. One had no training in teaching and did not appreciate the students' problems or try to sell the subject. But now I was making a living by doing some real work and research was not so pressing. I found that my research improved and I worked on problems which took me years to complete and I think that I did my best work after the age of 55. Then Bush and Howard came along, I started feeling sorry for the students. Slowly I found that many of them were bright and I think that my teaching improved towards the end of my career.
Now, If I want to, I can probably do research for another 20 years and can probably churn out a number of Ph.D's .I did not have such well-defined programmes 40 years ago for churning out research papers possibly because I did not belong to any school or come out of particular research programme. But my interests have shifted and moreover I feel that too much specialization and paper production is not so great. University teachers are also involved in formulating curricula etc and this specialization seems to leading to narrow specialists ignorant of other areas of acience and fighting for their own little topics. Luckily some American Institutions like Courant Institute have great allrounders and somehow, their paradigms seem to diffuse to rest of the world. Otherwise, we may end up like universities in India with their whole M.Phil courses consisting of minor topics in Set Topology or Fluid Mechanics.
But coming back teaching, it did improve my learning and appreciation of mathematics. My specialities are Topology and Geomtric Group Theory, but I often taught Calculus, Linear algebra, advanced Algebra, complex Analysis and a couple of times Finite Mathematics at the undergraduate level. Only while teaching I realized that the 'Fundamental Theorem of Calculus" was a specoal case of Stokes Theorem. It is a subtle subject but can be used like a machine without really knowing all the intricacies. I learnt Complex Analysis after my Ph.D. since I used to skip classes during my college days. While teaching, I realized that not only it was the most beautiful of classical subjects but also that lot of modern mathematics had roots in it. It was while teaching that I felt that it was Cantor and his Set Theory which made some of this subtle and difficult classical mathematics accessible to average persons (others may not agree but Caratheodory felt the same). While graduate courses in Topology were easy, I chose Geometric Group Theory often since I picked up the topic in my later years. Even though I was writing papers in that area, I did not know the basics, some times even definitions well, and it was hard and rewarding. So teaching was rewarding as well as helpful with research in my case. I regret that I did not really get in to applied areas.
From what I have seen of institutions in India and abroad, many university teachers are not trained teachers and tend be narrow specialists. Some sort of autonomy and having similar people to review their work allows them to teach whatever they like. Lot of research is just paper pushing, good students usually learn in spite of teachers (once in a while there may a good teacher who inspires) and usually after they finish degrees. There is some sort of diffusion coming from some outstanding scholars in the west and there is no clear plan or strcture in the Indian institurtions so far, With the govt. unwilling to relinquish control, and private institutions working for profit, I think that higher education will be chaotic. Meanwhile, some good researchers taking teaching seriously may help some students.
I wanted to reply to your query through my experience but it ended up a rant. May be others will have something more coherent to say.

Anant said...

Dear Swarup,

Your comments are always welcome and illuminating. It would be great if many other experienced persons such as yourself also contributed through narration of their life experiences which would be of immense value for others.



gaddeswarup said...

Like many I guess that I am prone to selective memory and cognitive dissonance. But at the blog level, hopefully, we can get a variety of such subjective experience and try to discern some patterns. Or somebody may direct us to some careful quantitative studies.

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