Talk About Teaching

A Community of Learners

by Art Casciato

To see the truth whole and steadily is difficult, even from the best of vantages. From the distance of a quarter century, it would seem almost impossible. In The Game of Life, James L. Shulman and William G. Bowen's recent attempt to parse the vexed relationship between educational values and college sports, a book studded throughout with sobering tables and charts, perhaps nothing should give us more pause than a survey of a certain group of male students asked to rate the priorities of the colleges and universities from which they graduated in 1976.

Many among us will no doubt be surprised to learn that this particular cohort--these men rank in the top 5% of alumni donors--view their alma mater's emphasis on intercollegiate athletics negatively. But their desire to change this emphasis seems relatively lukewarm when compared to the only category of institutional priority that they see more negatively--almost three times more negatively--than college sports: faculty research.

That these so-called "big givers" might not dig as deep as possible need not concern us; that people who have passed through our classrooms appear not to give the proverbial rat's behind for what we do outside of them as researchers should. Especially since the institutional priority that this same group perceives by far the most positively is teaching undergraduates. The view implied here is that research and teaching are diametrically opposed. Indeed, it appears that as far as these alumni are able to tell, rather than strengthening our teaching, faculty research actually hinders it. And they, I'm afraid, are not always alone.

The view that the classroom suffers because faculty are more interested in research than teaching, especially teaching undergraduates, is alive and well at every research university in this country, not excepting Penn. Unfortunately, those on campus most likely to see it this way are undergraduates themselves, some of them perhaps the sons and daughters of the same alumni surveyed above.

There is of course another way to look at faculty research, just as true and alive and as readily available, one in which teaching is seen as enhanced at a research university, that sees students as more actively engaged by a faculty devoted not only to the preservation and dissemination of knowledge but also to its creation. To help ensure that this more sanguine view of research's relationship to teaching prevails, Penn has established the Center for Undergraduate Research and Fellowships (CURF), charged with no less than helping to engage a significantly larger number of faculty and students in a shared culture of research. One indication that CURF will have met this challenge successfully is if fewer undergraduates leave Penn seeing research as working in opposition to teaching or, for that matter, as anything less than essential to it.

So here's the truth that those generous alumni from the class of 1976 either lost sight of over the years or perhaps sadly never had a chance to grasp whole in the first place: The conjunction of research and teaching is learning. How research and teaching come together need not always be apparent, but to see more clearly why I claim that the common ground between the two is learning, we might consider for a moment a sentiment that many of us have spoken or at least heard, something to the effect that "I never learned so much about something as when I had to teach it." Like all bromides, this one might lull us into thinking that it is only about what it names--teaching and learning--but what we are actually saying here is that the anxiety that comes from being responsible to teach someone about a subject drives us to learn more about it, that is, drives us deeper into research.

Which is just my roundabout way of pointing out that everyone at a research university, faculty and students alike, is first and foremost a learner. We became teachers because we were good learners, and we continue to learn ("keep up," in the vernacular) in order to be good teachers. There's an admirable circularity, a kind of Mobius strip-feel to all we do. We learn about something by researching it in order to teach it to students who want to learn about it. And despite the speeded-up, Taylorized, pre-professional, and careerist world in which we all must operate, it is exactly what I'll call our liberality of learning, our continued sense of vocation, our willingness to spend a lifetime studying something simply for the love of it that our students admire most about us still.

What my "talk about teaching" boils down to, then, is not a pedagogical technique or tip but rather a plea, an unoriginal one at that. Others have previously appealed to our self-interest as researchers, asking us to view undergraduates as a valuable resource yet untapped. I want to appeal instead to our self-interest as teachers: Please let undergraduates become meaningfully involved in your research. To do otherwise is to squander an important opportunity to teach students your love of learning as well as to miss a chance to make it clear to them that research as learning is, more often than not, the real source of knowledge and passion in the classroom.

In many respects, CURF was established to help students become great learners like the faculty they so admire. But CURF needs your help. Faculty must be generous and patient enough to share their research with undergraduates. Not so we can get an early start on reproducing ourselves as scholars--this can wait a little longer until graduate school--but rather so all of us can become what together we already more closely resemble anyway: a community of learners.

Dr. Casciato is the Director of the Center for Undergraduate Research and Fellowships. This essay continues the Talk About Teaching Series, now in its seventh year as the joint creation of the College of Arts and Sciences and the Lindback Society for Distinguished Teaching.

Almanac, Vol. 47, No. 30, April 17, 2001

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