Saturday, October 02, 2004

Feynman on Teaching and Research

On a college campus, particularly one like Dartmouth where we are known for the quality of undergraduate instruction, one of the more widely discussed issues is the "balance" between teaching and research. The two activities are described as if they are in competition, and people worry that an emphasis on one will lead to the detriment of the other. That seems to be true only under extreme time pressure, and not, for example, over a whole career or even the periods over which faculty are evaluated (e.g., annual reviews or a tenure review after six years). And, although this is the converse of what would assure most outsiders that research does not crowd out teaching, I have noticed that among tenured or tenure-track faculty in my department, the best teachers are also exceptional researchers.

The best statement I have read explaining why the two processes really are complementary is from the New York Times bestseller by Richard Feynman, Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman. The following excerpt is found on pages 165-166 of the paperback edition.

I don’t believe I can really do without teaching. The reason is, I have to have something so that when I don’t have any ideas and I’m not getting anywhere I can say to myself, "At least I’m living: at least I’m doing something; I’m making some contribution"—it’s just psychological.

When I was at Princeton in the 1940s I could see what happened to those great minds at the Institute for Advanced Study, who had been specially selected for their tremendous brains and were now given this opportunity to sit in this lovely house by the woods there, with no classes to teach, with no obligations whatsoever. These poor bastards could now sit and think clearly all by themselves, OK? So they don’t get an idea for a while: They have every opportunity to do something, and they’re not getting any ideas. I believe that in a situation like this a kind of guilt or depression worms inside of you, and you begin to worry about not getting any ideas. And nothing happens. Still no ideas come.

Nothing happens because there’s not enough real activity and challenge: You’re not in contact with the experimental guys. You don’t have to think how to answer questions from the students. Nothing!

In any thinking process there are moments when everything is going good and you’ve got wonderful ideas. Teaching is an interruption, and so it’s the greatest pain in the neck in the world. And then there are the longer periods of time when not much is coming to you. You’re not getting any ideas, and if you’re doing nothing at all, it drives you nuts! You can’t even say "I’m teaching my class."

If you’re teaching a class, you can think about the elementary things that you know very well. These things are kind of fun and delightful. It doesn’t do any harm to think them over again. Is there a better way to present them? Are there any new problems associated with them? Are there any new thoughts you can make about them? The elementary things are easy to think about; if you can’t think of a new thought, no harm done; what you thought about it before is good enough for the class. If you do think of something new, you’re rather pleased that you have a new way of looking at it.

The questions of the students are often the source of new research. They often ask profound questions that I’ve thought about at times and then given up on, so to speak, for a while. It wouldn’t do me any harm to think about them again and see if I can go any further now. The students may not be able to see the thing I want to answer, or the subtleties I want to think about, but they remind me of a problem by asking questions in the neighborhood of that problem. It’s not so easy to remind yourself of these things.

So I find that teaching and the students keep life going, and I would never accept any position in which somebody has invented a happy situation for me where I don’t have to teach. Never.


Mike Koh said...

If I remember correctly, James Gleik in "Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman" points out that Feynman actually did very little teaching (although he didn't not teach at all).

Jake said...

Undergraduates are better off going to colleges that cannot afford to have non-teaching researchers on the faculty.

At those colleges every professor has to teach and the student does not get stuck with most of the classes taught by TAs.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed reading this post, and will add this is my first time seeing the blog. What I am concerned about is that there seem to be a sizeable number of professors who have little interest in answering questions (either rambling off subject or acting dismissive about the question), and also a discouraging number of professors who don't hold discussion groups. Are they really helping themselves by creating a one way channel? They certainly aren't helping the students, who need only take verbatim notes to do well on papers and exams.

Alec Rawls said...

I would interpret Feynman's insight in terms of one of John Stuart Mill's profound observations about human nature. Mill suggested in Utilitarianism (Ch 2, PP 13) that mental health depends on achieving a regular alternation of tranquility and excitement, and that two of the great vices that people are prone to fall into come from getting stuck at one of these poles. In this framework, the effect of teaching is to force a recurring high level of performance--excitement--that keeps one from falling into torpor. Take away that regular activity, and it is much harder for a person to maintain a healthy state where transisiton into the active state comes easily. Mill saw us as creatures of habit, doing what is familiar. Forcing a high level of activity makes intellectual engagement familiar, and hence easier to step into.

Anonymous said...

I am a new faculty member; this is the first time I teach a large mandatory class. It takes forever to prepare! I spend about 8 hours preparing for each hour of class time! Plus actual teaching time, plus meeting with students, etc. All this means that I have NO research time left! I spend 3.5 days a week on teaching alone! By Thursday afternoon, when I am done with my teaching week, I am so exhausted that I can barely think. This semester will be over, and I will push for a lighter load. Crazy. There is no way to combine teaching and research. Really -- no way. You are either a serious researcher or a serious teacher. Which is why -- no offense -- liberal-arts colleges don't have very many serious researchers. And, of course, everyone knows that R.F. didn't teach all that much. It would be a shame to waste that kind of brain on explaining material that a grad student could explain just as well.

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