Monday, July 05, 2010

Teachable Moment?

Not long ago, I got an award for my research accomplishments, and was surprised, when the award was announced in my department, when a number of undergraduate students congratulated me on my "teaching award". The department chair's announcement didn't actually specify what the award was for; I suppose he thought most people would recognize the award by its name, but he wasn't thinking about the undergrads. With no other information than the name of the award and that it was "prestigious" (a bit of kind hyperbole), some undergrads assumed it was a teaching award.

I think the misinterpretation stems in part from the fact that these students know me best in my role as a teacher. I am sure they are all aware that their professors are both researchers and teachers, and I talk about my research in class, but still, my main interaction with these students is as a teacher.

I didn't correct those who congratulated me on my "teaching award", as I was unable to think of a good way to do this without making them think that I value research over teaching or that I didn't appreciate their kind words.

Yes, I know there is a possible sexist element to their assumption that I got a teaching award. Would students assume that a male professor had received a teaching award if the only thing they knew about the award was that it was "prestigious" ? I don't know.
I do admit that I sort of wish they knew it was a research award (because it was), but I am taking the congratulations of my students as a compliment. Perhaps they assumed it was a teaching award because they like me as a teacher? I certainly can't complain about that, especially since I am (apparently) so kind and sweet.

I think this anecdote mostly illustrates the fact that undergraduates -- even those at a research university -- see their professors primarily as teachers. It makes sense that they are most aware of what most directly affects their lives, but it is a reminder that there may be a disconnect between how we see ourselves (in my case, as both a research and teacher) and how our students perceive us.

This episode also reminded me how quickly some of us change roles -- emotionally/mentally -- once the academic year is over. If we had been deep in the academic year when I had these interactions with students, I wonder if I would have been as surprised. Given the timing, though, I was, at least in my own mind, deep into research mode. My students reminded me that, even when I think that I am wearing my research hat, I am still their teacher.


Anonymous said...

Undergrads think that all you do is sit around and plan things to teach them. Of course they and everyone outside of academia would think that any award besides a Nobel is for one's teaching.

Anonymous said...

Students at my institution (a public research intensive university) assume that (i) teaching is our main responsibility (ii) tuition fees pay for our salaries (they cover around 35%, i.e. not even the teaching component) and (iii) some students assume that "those who can't, teach" and they are surprised when they hear that I've been in industry at very senior positions.

Anonymous said...

Yep, the majority of undergraduate students think of their professors as primarily teachers as this is the capacity they know them in.

I think that it is easy for us folks who have always been interested in research (likely even as an undergraduate) to lose sight of that. The reality is that the majority of undergraduates have no interest in research and (depending on their major), never take part in any sort of research, and so it is not particularly on their radar.

Helen Huntingdon said...

I ran into the same misperception quite a few times while I was a student. I think the earliest was when I was still an undergrad -- another undergrad expressed disgust at how much of a particular building was devoted to "offices" which he viewed as useless. I explained that the area he was talking about was mostly research labs. We went through several rounds of him trying to explain, no, he meant *this* space, and me saying, yes, exactly, that space is mostly research labs.

A few times as a grad student researcher, I had to kick undergrads out of our office with a firm talking-to. In all such cases, the students in question had decided that grad students in offices are necessarily TAs, that TAs are there to serve the customers/students, and they should be able to barge in and demand help on their homework at any time. "There are no TAs in this room," would get that, "guh, what?" noncomprehension reaction for a few moments before it sunk in.

Some even tried barging in and demanding to use our research equipment. Note I've been saying "demand", not "ask". It was pretty much the same reasoning. If they were in a course under X specialization, and our lab was for X specialization, then they thought they should get to use whatever they wanted. "No, you can use the labs designated for that purpose, which this one isn't," tended to be met with umbrage until I ramped up to the firm scolding approach. Murmurings of taking this over my head would happen, but my response of "by all means," with helpful pointings to offices at which to complain tended to end that.

This all took me by surprise, since I chose to attend a large research university to gain access to opportunities not available elsewhere to students. If what you want is a teaching-only college, such a place is not going to give you what you want. I'm still puzzled by students who view themselves as customers not bothering to figure out even that much before purchasing.

Meadow said...

Interesting. I think there is some gender influence i.e. females are expected to be nurturers. In my view it reflects well on you that you are a good researcher and a good teacher.

Have you experienced resentment from male faculty whose research may be good but whose teaching is not so good? In my experience when a man is a good researcher and a good teacher he is viewed as gifted/special blah blah. But when a woman is a good researcher and a good teacher, male colleagues view her with suspicion acting as if she is being too easy on the students. The double-standard pisses me off.

Anonymous said...

I am sure they are all aware that their professors are both researchers and teachers

I think most of the undergrads here consider teachers who also do research the exception rather than the rule (if they're aware of it at all). My anecdotal sense is that undergrads mostly have no idea about research, and this tends to be true even about undergrads who have professors among their friends and family.

Bashir said...

I've tried to explain things such as the research-teaching-service balance, or the many types of professors (assistant, full, lectures, etc) to students.

In my experience it's very difficult for students to get this unless they see if for themselves by working in a lab. That experience can really change their idea of what goes on at a university.

Anonymous said...

I think what would be really helpful is if more professors spoke to their undergraduate classes about their research and the research of other PIs in the department.

Undergraduates don't know much about the research goings-on of their institution because no one tells them about it.

During my undergrad, I can only remember 1 or 2 instances where a prof mentioned their research activities.

Anonymous said...

Student: "congratulations on the teaching award!"
FSP: "thanks, the award was given to me because of my research on 'topic X', if you want I can give you a PDF of the journal article the award was based on."

How hard was that FSP?

Anonymous said...

Even within academic circles there can be a lot of confusion on this because of field differences and differences between institutions. My father (a former prof in a social science) always asks if I'm "getting a chance to teach" in my postdocs. I tell him about guest lecturers etc. but he means really running a class. When I explain that the postdoc is all research and really giving me a boost in my job search he goes back to teaching and how if I teach for my postdoc uni I may "get my foot in the door". I have more teaching experience than most postdocs in my field but also know that research is the critical element in getting me the job I want - he doesn't get that despite having been at an R1 because of the deep differences in the fields. Also my husband's parents (both with strong academic connections to the local university) would ask what I wanted to do with my PhD - teach? I would try and explain yes but that research was a major component. They still don't really get that. Their friends and family who are profs at the local university teach - what was I trying to do?

Anonymous said...

Ooh Bashir, you hit a nerve. This is tangential, but the general public's perception of "Assistant" Professor drives me crazy. I've been an assistant professor for two years now, and have gotten comments like "Oh, Assistant Professor... So do you get to teach?" and "Oh I know someone who works at Your U. She's not a real professor, though, it's something called Associate Professor." Argh! Maybe a topic for another day.

Alex said...

Regarding whether an assistant professor is a "real professor" in the minds of non-academics: Academic titles are confusing. Would everyone here be able to explain exactly what an adjunct clinical professor of chemistry is? (Yes, I've seen people with titles like that.) Could you explain to your neighbor the difference between a lecturer with security of employment and a senior lecturer? (Yes, I've seen schools with both titles.) Could you explain in spoken words (not writing) the difference between a University Professor and a university professor? The difference between a Senior Research Associate and a Research Assistant Professor? I've seen faculty rosters that listed some senior professionals with lots of experience as "Instructors" and others as "Adjunct Professors" and I have no clue why one of these part-timers got one title and the other got the other title. How about the difference between a "Teaching Professor" and other professors? (Yes, I've seen people with the title "Teaching Professor.")

So, I cut the non-academics a break when they think that an assistant professor isn't a real professor. I even cut the freshmen a break if most of their classes have been taught by adjuncts and grad students and a few full-time but non-tenure track Lecturers. They probably think that Real Professors (whatever that means) are these rare creatures that they will rarely encounter.

Anonymous said...

Oh, FSP -- we all know you are an award-winning researcher, teacher, and blogger -- even without resorting to the "thinly-veiled brag post."

You go girl!

Anonymous said...

It's weird that anyone would think an anonymous person writing about an unspecified award is bragging. The topic of the post is how undergraduates at a research university perceive their professors.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps the undergraduates are more familiar with the land grant act, which states that the purpose of creating the land grant universities was "without excluding other scientific and classical studies and including military tactic, to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts, in such manner as the legislatures of the States may respectively prescribe, in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life."

Granted, the current mission of pretty much all R1 land grant universities has moved teaching to the background and research to the foreground, but teaching was what these schools were created for and paid for by the taxpayer.

Wendell Berry just made a big protest on this point by pulling his papers from the University of Kentucky. Likewise, I'm no fan of Gov. Pawlenty (the politician in a previous post) by any stretch of the imagination, but popular perception of universities (especially public land-grant ones like that in his state, Minnesota) is extremely important, and to taxpayers (especially state taxpayers), teaching is what they're paying you to do.

bunwal said...

I agree with Anon at 1:18. I would not hesitate in the slightest to politely correct the misinformed students. At the very least this can open the eyes of the students to the many roles that faculty play, but might also spawn a scientific discussion. Either way, the students learn something (hopefully, anyway).

Regardless of the conversation (or lack thereof) that ensues, this action is required by the job description, isn't it? Educating students, furthering your research, public outreach, etc.? That's how I'd look at it.

Anonymous said...

When complimented for something, I would find it hard to correct the person who was saying something nice to me, even if it is (part of) my job to teach this person other things.

Anonymous said...

To offer a different side of this same issue:

The day I met him, my first undergrad research advisor told me that the difference between Big Famous Private University I was attending and a nearby state school was that in the state school, when the lecture was over, the professor was thinking about the students. However, at Big Famous School, the minute lecture is over, professors there aren't thinking about their students at all. They go back to thinking about their research.

So, thanks to this conversation, I never thought that my professors were primarily teachers. But I also didn't last long in that department, thanks in no small part to the far better teaching I encountered in another department.

chemdoc said...

I am surprised that so many of you report this problem.

I attended a Research I university and at no point was I under the impression that the professors only taught. In fact, they appeared to care little for their teaching and to focus far more on their research.

I wonder what has changed in 30 years. Is the teaching that much better? Are the students that much less informed?

David Gaba said...

I'm curious why FSP felt reluctant to mention to the students congratulating her something to the effect of "by the way, this award was for my research work, which is on a really really interesting topic." I don't think this would have offended them and would also possibly make them curious about the cool research.