The selfish case for teaching

Joseph Wright of Derby, “Academy by lamplight”

Scientists have more to gain from teaching than they often realise.

Nowadays, there’s an intrinsic tension in academic life between research and teaching. Young scientists are often encouraged to think that “science” equals “research”, and that any professional activity not associated with benchwork is to be minimised or, preferably, avoided completely. This is wrong.

While it is undoubtedly the case that teaching can be hugely time-consuming, and that an unfair or excessive teaching load can be detrimental – sometimes in the extreme – to research productivity, there are also very good reasons for not shunning teaching responsibilities. 

There are the obvious ones. The altruistic case (knowledge should be disseminated, not hoarded), the societal case (teaching undergraduates helps raise baseline understanding of science), the institutional case (good teaching enhances the university’s reputation), even the contractual case (the university pays at least part of the scientist’s salary, so they’re entitled to expect something in return). But it’s easy to overlook that there are also personal benefits to teaching.

Selfish ones, that is.

These selfish benefits directly counter one of the most problematic aspects of modern scientific research – the need for extreme specialisation. Nowadays, scientists tend to focus obsessively on a single, probably small, problem and study it at increasing grades of resolution. Ideally, they will be part of a small or sometimes quite large community of like-minded obsessives who think this one particular thing is the cat’s pyjamas.

Setting aside the unwelcome and often acknowledged probability that plenty of scientific papers seem to have more authors than they do readers, there are two main shortcomings of this otherwise laudable and productive approach to research activity: an erosion of basic knowledge, and a loss of perspective.

As undergraduates, scientists will have received a broad theoretical foundation in their subject of choice. However the brain has a terrible tendency to keep only what it needs, so as professional scientists specialise and specialise, all those topics unrelated to their nascent research obsession slowly dim and are gradually forgotten. 

This erosion is not good, because even if you’re researching something at high resolution, that particular natural problem will not exist in a metaphorical vacuum (of course if you’re in cosmology, it may well exist in a literal vacuum). That fading basic knowledge is the conceptual framework on which all subsequent enquiry is based, so losing it is akin to discarding your map and compass. Science is often characterised as a journey or adventure into the unknown, but it’s not one that should be conducted without bearings or navigation aids. 

A loss of perspective is equally likely. Any scientist can usually talk volubly to fellow specialists in their particular area, but a real acid test is asking them to explain their research – to justify their research focus – in terms that are understandable to the lay public. Many can’t, or can only manage a very weak justification or rather evasive explanation. This is the bigger implication of a loss of the basics – that someone is no longer able to see their research area as a small part of a bigger problem, whether it is the cell cycle, planet formation, or chirality. 

It’s doubly difficult because once you’ve retreated into that tiny little research niche, it’s hard to see the way back to where you started. And those two growing deficiencies – unfamiliarity with basic knowledge, loss of perspective – will make it harder to make novel connections between subject areas, harder to generate novel hypotheses, and harder to visualise a problem in terms of fundamental mechanisms instead of esoteric special cases.

Rather than try to find your way back, it’s easier instead to press the reset button. Start over again at the basics, and retrace your footsteps until you arrive – like Mole in “Wind in the Willows” – back home once more in your snug little niche. And it’s this that teaching provides. Having to suddenly go all the way back to the start reminds and instructs you where you fit into the bigger picture, and that revived perspective often brings further benefits of the sort listed in the previous paragraph.

Teaching is fundamentally important and a fundamental part of scientists’ contribution to society, and should be celebrated and encouraged on its own merits. But don’t forget that there are good selfish reasons for engaging in it too.

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