The value of teaching, research

As a public research university we are committed to public engagement. We value the possibilities.

Recently, I spoke to a group of the newest members of the Academy of Distinguished Teachers at the University. My subject was the value of teaching in a research university. I emphasized the high value we place on teaching at the University.

As part of our strategic positioning process, this University has high aspirations to be within the top three public research universities. These aspirations and the importance of teaching are fully consistent with our mission as a public research university. As a public research university we are committed to public engagement and advancing the public good. As a university we are committed to teaching as an integral part of our mission. This focus on teaching distinguishes this university from that of a research institute.

Although it may challenge conventional wisdom, a great public research university is all about teaching. A central part of our vision and responsibility is to promote the growth of knowledge and understanding. Our core mission is to integrate knowledge through research, teaching and civic engagement. To go beyond what we now know is an important part of what and who we are as a University. And that is all about teaching.

We all too often mischaracterize, and thus under-appreciate, the relationship of teaching to research and of research to teaching. By research, I include scholarship and creative activity in its many forms. While I firmly support the mission of our great research university in integrating knowledge through teaching and research, I contend that teaching versus scholarship or research is a false dichotomy in that research and teaching (including public outreach) are mutually dependent. It really is all about teaching – in our scholarship, in our classrooms, in our offices, and wherever we engage students, the public and experts.

While there will be fine teachers who are not fine researchers and fine researchers who are not fine teachers, these in my view are the exception and not the rule here at the University. The interrelationship can be difficult to convey in all of its complexity, but I believe some of the very best teaching owes its roots to the experience gained through active research, which in itself is a type of learning and teaching.

More and more, the growth of knowledge will rely on integrating and spanning various disciplines. The implications for teaching are profound. We will see more biologists with expertise or interest in mathematics, more psychologists with expertise or interest in neuroscience, and more policymakers with expertise or interest in economics. What we teach will affect how we teach – and there are any number of exciting interdisciplinary possibilities to be realized by our faculty and, notably, by our students.

Teaching at this University occurs in many places: The classroom, seminar, lab, the stage, and studio are all important centers of learning. But the entire “environment” we create – or students themselves create – must not be overlooked. We must, as teachers, do all we can to promote multiple places and spaces of learning. In a hallway discussion, in sharing a research article, in an encouraging remark, in demonstrating patience and tolerance, in setting high critical standards and maintaining them – all of these represent great and lasting teaching.

There is, then, the excellence of teaching and the teaching of excellence. Or, in the words of Aristotle: “We are what we repeatedly do; excellence is not an act, but a habit.”

Our faculty have a noble aim, engaged as they are in “improving the human condition through the advancement of knowledge.” Teaching is, and always will be, an essential part of what we do and, importantly, who we are.

E. Thomas Sullivan is the senior vice president for Academic Affairs and provost. Please send comments to [email protected]