Passion to teach: The false choice of research over teaching

There is the sense in the academic legions of research professors that teaching is evidence of failure for those who cannot do research. This is no different than the adage that those who can do, those who can’t teach. In the world we live in the tables of academia have been turned and the roles have been swapped. Tenure is attained to keep researchers from having to compete for a job and is usually attained based on the significance of research. In the academic world the original purpose of tenure was to protect those who taught from censure of not doing research but loved teaching.

There will be those that I am arguing simply the idea of teaching and ignoring research because I have failed at it. There will also be those who think I am writing about teaching because my research is unfunded. Neither is true. I am arguing that teaching has become a vacant goal in higher education regardless of the statements made by higher education leadership and politicians. A state legislature cannot reasonably argue for better teaching in higher education while slicing the budgets from 90+ percent funded to less than 10 percent funded. Higher education administrators are no better when building resort level student housing and ignoring classrooms that are filled to the brim and leave students with standing room only. The statement is get more students regardless of the quality teaching they will get. Teaching is an also ran in a horse race of dollars.

I truly enjoy teaching but I take a Socratic view on teaching. When talking to a room full of freshman college students I ask open-ended questions. I ask the students the question why? The questions flow and the discussion hopefully revolves around the topic of the day. I keep short outlines on my iPad and rarely use PowerPoint decks to prop me up. When I do use slides, I draw concept maps or have the students draw them. If you do not do the reading before entering my classes, you are in jeopardy from your fellow students.

The academic world holds a balance of you do research here, and you do teaching there, and if you are doing both it is likely trivial in both cases. The concept of by rote learning that is easily metricable is shoved up against accreditation guidelines. Discovery based learning is usually subsumed into a series of lectures followed by multiple-choice questionnaires that may be biased by culture and gender. I dislike grading multiple-choice questionnaires and I hate scripted lectures.

I try to set up my courses with a series of laboratory exercise and move the students from unknowing to capable of discovery. The sink or swim method of teaching students a topic is cruel. I prefer to give them an outline of the knowledge domain so they can at least make useful queries in trying to move forward. Then I trip them and knock them into the water.

This is not just about teaching and meeting the learning objectives on a course outline. It is about teaching students to learn and discover for themselves. In some ways, I consider it the greatest social hack of my life. I integrate my teaching and research in an effort to remain viable in the university system. I distribute my research across a broad swath of students. I do not just have one research assistant grudgingly given to my by my administration. I have dozens.

It takes a lot of effort to create a course that each semester is new, fresh, and moves a research process forward. In the past I have integrated all of my courses and separated up the tasks and requirements of a large scale science project across five dozen students. This requires project management skills, exceptional time and effort to coordinate, and it is a blast to do. I talked about this with some senior government scientists and they were amazed at the high quality products we produced and at how well the teams worked on problems.
Relevance is the key ingredient for success. In the past, my students have worked on large-scale architecture of networks inclusive of operating systems and user interfaces. Using open source materials and deriving new and varied skill sets, they designed and built enterprise networks. The same students learned modeling and costing of a large enterprise (global scale) and as a group of undergraduate produced a multiple hundred-page design specification.

Another group of students teetering on the edge of reality and relevancy produced an instantly expandable rendering cluster operating system. With a CD and a very little skill you could create an instant Blender cluster for rendering digital information. Still another group categorized and assessed the relevancy of every Common Vulnerability Exposure at the time. All of them.

This semester I could have given my students a device and said do forensics on it, but instead after having done five labs, I sent them to do their midterm. They went home and found a device to do a forensic investigation on. I told them that based on the difficulty of the device and the depth of their exploration I would determine a grade. For a letter grade (final) worth of points there has to be trust between the students and the professor. I think I have that, but I never assume it. The results were excellent.

Last semester I took one of my classes and I gave them a midterm that was very general. Write on this possible problem and do some very deep analysis. The issue was cyber attacks against the gas and oil industry. Writing on something individually injects a lot of bias and the individual papers while very interesting were stale. The wire heads wrote about techie issues and the social science folks wrote about politics. I then told them to mash the papers together and lectured for a while on the analysis techniques they could use as part of their investigation. Once again, the result was phenomenal.

I am told that you cannot do research and teaching at the same time without it being trivial. Over the last decade, I have learned to move the science forward without ignoring my teaching responsibilities. I like to fuse these two things together, keep myself interested, and produce a better scholar from the raw material of students. The students are not my customer but by collaborator on the way to making them scholars.

While I enjoy what I am doing it is unrewarded and I find myself at odds with goals of the university and my desire to be more effective. Even if I am being successful at getting science done, I am not compensating the university for my mere presence by achieving grants and contracts. As the American research enterprise contracts within the public institutions, I do not know what I will do next. In the modern research enterprise of a land grant university being innovative and getting research done is less important than grant dollars to support the university appetite for money.

I wrote with colleagues over 30 million dollars in grants last year and barely scored 200 hundred thousand dollars in equipment donations and funding. I had one grant kicked back because after it was turned in the funding agency declared optional paperwork a requirement. Only those grant seekers that did the optional paperwork (as in not required) were considered fundable. In other cases, they are now requiring grant seekers to use a special bibliography and edit citations to a new standard. None of which has any bearing on the science.

I admit it I am pretty depressed by what I see going on.

As much as people say they want innovative learning styles and push for experiential learning I increasingly think that there is no place for that in higher education. There is no real desire to do this, just lots of talk. As much as people and politicians talk about wanting research that is immediately useful, I know that funding agencies and even corporations do not care about that. What the politicians and academic leadership say is fundamentally opposed to the incentives that they create.

I have over a decade of leading and cajoling large-scale research teams and I think that is ending. The incentives are not aligned with the requirements and that means I have to choose. Either leave academia or do it the way that everybody else does it. Since my area of specialty is in demand I can leap out and take some low level analyst position somewhere in industry and be happy. I know that I will make much more money than I do now.

This is not a grass is greener on the other side kind of musing. This is where do you want to be and what are you willing to do on the way to success. The modern industrial academic enterprise is not interested in merely educating the next generation. They are interested in receivables and grant-funded research that accrues more grant-funded research. This is sort of a self-licking ice cream cone, and I’m lactose intolerant.

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