Total Drek

Or, the thoughts of several frustrated intellectuals on Sociology, Gaming, Science, Politics, Science Fiction, Religion, and whatever the hell else strikes their fancy. There is absolutely no reason why you should read this blog. None. Seriously. Go hit your back button. It's up in the upper left-hand corner of your browser... it says "Back." Don't say we didn't warn you.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

I have no witty title for this post.

So what else is new, eh?

A while back Practicing Idealist wrote a post discussing the relative statuses of teaching and research in academia. It will surprise no academics, and probably will surprise non-academics, to know that teaching is more or less viewed as equivalent to taking out the trash- an unpleasant chore to be avoided when possible. This is to say that teaching is not terribly valued.

The reasons for this more or less boil down to a simple proposition: academics are not, by and large, rewarded for teaching. Esteem from peers, job opportunities, and financial rewards largely accrue to those who demonstrate prowess in research. Often, skill with research will cover for grievous sins in the classroom- sometimes to the extent that, so long as you don't do anything illegal,* whatever you choose to do to your students is acceptable. So, what motivation is there for academics to try to be good teachers? It harms us in virtually every way and the only rewards are knowing that you are providing a service for your students who are, I am sorry to say, a notoriously ungrateful bunch.

In any case, Practicing Idealist makes the argument that teaching should confer more status within academia and, as it happens, I agree with her. This is not because I want to be a teacher, however. I do enjoy teaching and, so far as I can tell, my students largely appreciate my efforts. Those who know my true identity will doubtless get a kick out of looking me up on,** but that isn't my point. My point is that while I am, myself, a research focussed individual, I do think that teaching deserves more of our time and energy. My reasons for this, oddly, are quite similar to my reasons for supporting a limited form of Public Sociology.

Now I've written at length previously about this issue but, to provide a quick summary, I think we as sociologists need to do a better job of convincing the public that what we do matters. I often hear sociologists lamenting that their family and "civilian" friends don't understand sociological insight and persist in believing things that we know to be incorrect. Fair enough but the question I have to ask is, When was the last time you tried to teach sociology to a general audience? I don't mean your classes, either. A required Soc 101 course is, at best, going to reach a tiny fraction of the total population. Have you written any articles for general interest magazines? Written a popular press book about exchange theory, perhaps? Maybe started a blog?*** No? Well, maybe that's the problem. It may be that the average person doesn't know much sociology, but it's at least partly our fault for not trying to teach it to them.

This problem is not, of course, limited to sociology either. Consider for a moment the men and women of intelligent design creationism, who are attempting to disguise a religious doctrine as science and ram it into the public schools. Particularly, consider the new book by Michael Behe, (one of ID's only leaders with real scientific credentials) titled "The Edge of Evolution." "The Edge of Credulity" would be a better title since it is a pack of half-truths and outright fabrication. And if you don't believe me, try this response which makes a pretty strong case that Behe is willfully ignoring relevant evidence.

Now, biologists could write this all off and blame the public. The public is just ignorant, and stupid, and can't tell that Behe is dazzling them with bullshit. People making that argument might well be correct, too. Obviously there is a tremendous lack of understanding about how science works and what it tells us. While I wouldn't say that the public is stupid,**** I would say that a large number of people don't have hobby interests in modern science and are, instead, content to watch the superbowl and wrestling. The problem is, we need to ask the next question: why is the public so ignorant of modern science? Is it because they are somehow just physically incapable of learning it,***** or is it because we're not doing a good enough job of disseminating scientific knowledge? If some people are starving to death while others have a gigantic stockpile of food, do we blame the starving for being stupid,****** or do we blame the distribution system? By the same token, if the public doesn't understand the vast amount of information that modern science has produced and continues to produce, do we blame them for being stupid, or do we accept part of the blame for not trying to convey that knowledge? I've had some pretty dumb students, but I'll be damned if their ignorance was entirely their own fault.

I think teaching needs to be more of a priority******* for the same reason that I support some sort of limited form of public sociology: because it is necessary that the knowledge we discover be disseminated to the public. We need to do it in the classroom, we need to do it in the media, and we need to do it in our lives. Will it be a thankless job? Maybe.

But then, we didn't go into academia for the money, did we?

* Sexual harassment falls into the category of things you can't do no matter how f-ing good you are at research. Or at least, I tell myself that so I can sleep at night.

** Which is, like, TOTALLY valid and stuff. Especially the "chili pepper hotness meter." Honestly, at what point did college level teaching become "American Idol"?

*** C'mon, I get to be a little self-indulgent now and then, don't I?

**** Technically, I would say that. I think, however, that the "public" is not any more foolish on average than any other group. It's probably worth noting, additionally, that I use the term "stupid" to refer to a person's unwillingness to engage in critical thought, rather than to their native intelligence. I think even the smartest people are capable of being pretty bloody dumb from time to time.

***** Don't make me laugh. Some people are almost unteachable but, by and large, people can learn more than they think they can. I once taught the concept of an electromagnetic spectrum to five and six year olds. If they can learn that...

****** The invisible Ann Coulter who lives in my brain asnwers: "Yes."

******* Of course, in perfect honesty, I would gladly not teach in exchange for more time to do research, so I am part of the problem myself.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here's a conundrum: if the highest ranking schools are also the ones in which the professors focus more on research than on teaching, how is it that they are also turning out the best graduates? These students have to be learning the ropes somehow, right?

Wednesday, August 08, 2007 12:06:00 PM  
Blogger Drek said...

If by "graduates" you mean "graduate students" then it's no surprise: good researchers are training others who are judged favorably for doing research. Besides, there's a huge selection effect there as many people who enter graduate school don't finish.

If you mean undergrads, however, here's the rub: how do you know the highest ranking research schools are really turning out the "best" students? Are we assuming the quality of the students based on the research acumen of the school as a whole?

Wednesday, August 08, 2007 12:51:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another consideration--especially when thinking about the "best" universities--is network ties. When you associate with those deemed the best and the brightest, opportunities tend to open up very quickly. And, of course, connections and access to wealth don't hurt either. Which is one of the many reasons that downward social mobility is much less likely from the top of the income distribution to the middle than it is from the middle of the distribution to the top.

It should also be noted that many liberal arts universities tend not to fall prey to this problem. How so? They don't focus as much attention on research, and actually do value teaching. So newly minted PhDs that would like to be good teachers, rather than full time researchers often pursue that track.

The net effect, then, is that students from smaller liberal arts universities are often better trained than those from large, and prominent research universities.


Wednesday, August 08, 2007 2:37:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hmmm...I have the idea in my head that the undergraduate majors at top schools fare better, but I don't actually know. And then there's the question of whether you would determine quality of education based on knowledge of the discipline, success in career, or success in graduate school. Ideally all three.

As for graduate students, i think the fact that they are being trained by their professors indicates that the profs are doing a pretty decent job with at least one aspect of teaching. But then, that may only add to the status argument, since training up a horde of minions--er, students, who will do things like help you get published and bump up your citations count can't hurt. And you're generating new network ties you can utilize later. It's win-win.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007 3:14:00 PM  
Blogger Drek said...

We also have to keep in mind that schools with good reputations may attract the more dedicated students to begin with. If the graduates are subsequently "better" there's no guarantee that it is a result of teaching- could just be that the "raw material" was better off to begin with.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that researchers CANNOT be good teachers, but teaching is a tough job, and if we're not rewarded for it, where's the motivation to work at it?

I suppose there's always the fear of dying on stage but fear will only motivate you to work just hard enough, and no harder.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007 3:27:00 PM  

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