Emory Report

 September 15, 1997

 Volume 50, No. 4

Beginning a conversation:
responses to Teaching at Emory

The work of the Commission on Teaching resulted in the publication of Teaching at Emory, featured in last week's Emory Report. Now the University turns toward transforming Teaching at Emory into a working document-one that leads to reflection, discussion and action. In the following article, five faculty members and a dean were asked for their initial responses to the report as a way to begin this transformation.

While such a small group cannot represent the entire faculty, the respondents offer a range of views concerning the report. These essays serve as the beginning of a conversation that will continue throughout the semester.


Teaching and research are mutually inclusive

The teaching commission's report urges us to place teaching on the same plane with research. This recommendation is bound to be controversial. Many colleagues in Emory College-our best teachers among them-have shared their doubts with me. They argue that openly acknowledging such a policy would hinder us in competing with other major research universities in recruiting and retaining excellent research faculty.

One problem with the commission's report, I now recognize in retrospect, is that (while it says otherwise) it implicitly continues to adopt a model of teaching and research in competition with each other. This problem also emerges explicitly in Choices & Responsibility. An hour spent teaching is an hour taken away from research and vice versa.

To the contrary, teaching and research form a seamless web; they are complementary activities; the better we teach, the better we are at research; the better we are at research, the better we teach.

We can depict the basic model of teaching versus research much as economists depict the trade-offs in an economy: create a graph with "guns" on one axis and "butter" on the other, and draw a downward-sloping line from the top left to the bottom right. The graph shows that the opportunity cost of producing more of one thing is producing less of another. At some level of abstraction, this depiction characterizes all activities, including teaching, research, and service to the University and community versus just being home with the kids.

My teacher, William Riker, once wrote that teaching and research are both forms of explanation. When we teach we explain to students what we and others have already learned from our research. That is, we convey to them more or less settled knowledge and understanding. But when we research and publish, we explain to our colleagues what no one has explained before. The two forms of explanation should flow together, and those things that foster the first should likewise foster the second.

Most active researchers, for example, have had the experience of teaching a class or conducting a seminar, only to discover in the middle of a lecture or discussion that there is an inconsistency or an unanswered question in the center of what appeared to be settled knowledge. By organizing, reorganizing and repeatedly conveying such knowledge to our students, we more easily can discover the pieces that simply do not fit. Teaching thus enables us to be better researchers.

But causation goes in the other direction. Some years ago, when my father retired as chief of medicine at the Maine Medical Center, I attended the scientific session held in his honor. His most famous student, Louis Weinstein, gave his well-known lecture on infective endocarditis. This is not a favorite topic of mine, but I found myself caught up in a remarkable talk. Why? Not because Dr. Weinstein is a spellbinding lecturer-he is rather ordinary in that regard. No, what Louis Weinstein shared with us was his profound excitement about infective endocarditis. Nor was this a wholly "canned" lecture, for the etiology of the disease has changed over time, and Dr. Weinstein has been at the forefront of researching those changes. I believe, then, that for us to convey to our students excitement about what we teach, we must be excited about it ourselves. And there is no better way to gain that excitement than to be intimately involved in research.

Finally, increasing specialization now sometimes makes it difficult to evaluate our colleagues' research, even in the same discipline. Research, followed by publication, provides us with external evidence that our colleagues remain competent to teach their subjects. This form of certification is more important for graduate and advanced undergraduate education than it is for introductory courses. But the rate of new knowledge creation is increasing. So, after enough time has elapsed, a teacher who does no research will lose the ability to teach introductory courses as well as the excitement for teaching at all levels. And a researcher who does no teaching, or who teaches with little interest, will lose sight of the body of settled knowledge.

Peter Aranson
Chair and Professor of

A starting point for long-term engagement

As chair of the Faculty Council, I was asked to review Teaching at Emory prior to its general release. I am pleased to be among the first to offer my gratitude to the members of the Commission of Teaching for their hard work over the past two years and to commend them on the document they have produced. I agree fundamentally with the seven statements of "principles and vision" identified by the commission. Although much work remains to be done in weaving the fabric that will cover this foundational structure, an excellent framework has been provided by the commission.

As noted by the report itself, Teaching at Emory is to be a starting point for a long and continuing discussion of teaching at Emory and neither a final plan of action nor a detailed and permanent conceptual plan. In the dialogue that the report commences, there must be reasoned and passionate discussion of teaching at Emory. This exchange of ideas will no doubt produce more disagreements than agreement initially; that is the nature of true engagement with critical issues. Even changes in the present statement of "principles and vision" will doubtlessly emerge in the course of discussion.

For us to be successful in the crucial endeavor, the entire University-faculty, administration, students and staff-must commit to a meaningful and long-term engagement in the dialogue of teaching at Emory. These dialogues must take place both within schools and across school lines; nothing less offers any promise of success. They must be understood to be substantively significant to University policy and vital to the University's mission. Nothing can be placed "off limits" other than the centrality of teaching at Emory itself! It may be true that the dialogue can never end as long as Emory values teaching excellence.

My greatest concern about the process is that the advocates of either tradition or innovation in teaching will become dominant in our deliberations. We must "keep our eyes on the prize" of promoting excellence in teaching without regard to whether it is achieved through the oldest or newest of techniques. We must take the best of the new and the old, without a bias toward either, to be what we aspire to be.

William Cody 
Associate Professor of 
Politics, Oxford College

Programmatic and structural
improvements already underway

The report of the Commission on Teaching is a testament to Emory's commitment to an integrated university. An inherent problem in many major universities has been balancing the often dueling goals of excellence in research and excellence in teaching. These potential conflicts are acknowledged and thoughtfully grappled with, and creative solutions are put forth in this report. I like the commission's statement that, indeed, teaching is the raison d'être of a university, and the "first and foremost responsibility of the faculty." In my experience, too often large research universities have looked away from their responsibilities to students- particularly undergraduates.

This perspective statement is the basis for the report's discussion regarding how to support and enhance teaching. Out of the data collection phase, a number of active programmatic initiatives are already underway. I have benefited from several of the commission's recommendations. The foreign language component of the Center for Teaching has enabled me to make untranslated French anthropological viewpoints accessible to my students. An appreciation for multiple viewpoints is imperative in my discipline to prevent intellectual myopia.

Serious consideration regarding the need for facilities' improvement also has already materialized: The more than five miles of wires that have been installed in Geosciences 303 have resulted in a "technoroom" that is an inspiration and promises exciting new possibilities for classroom teaching, including active video interaction with colleagues during class. I hope further efforts at internationalization presently underway result in active exchange programs for faculty as well as students.

The perspective raised in the commission's report concerning the evaluation of teaching focuses attention on how best to evaluate performance and excellence in a practical sense. Besides patience and humanity, the qualities and skills that contribute to good teaching are learned. Few of my generation had the advantage of a TATTO-type initiative. Instead it seems we struggled through the early teaching experiences with an eye towards duplicating what our inspired mentors did. I am especially pleased that all of our graduate students-regardless of disciplinary focus-will benefit from the TATTO experience, a wonderful marker of an Emory education.

Finally, the report articulates that the teaching component of our job goes far beyond the classroom. We become a part of the lives of our students, part of their conceptual world as they make their way through the transition to young adulthood, a complex and often treacherous passage in our culture. This is not necessarily a conscious choice on the part of a committed professor; it simply happens as part of the normal interaction between students and their mentors.

The pivotal aspect of the report addresses the question of how to promote excellence in teaching at Emory as a goal on par with excellence in research. The assumption seems to be that teaching might become secondary were it not for the present efforts. I would like to see equal attention given now in support of faculty research efforts. The overall goal of excellence in both domains may best be accomplished with careful assessment of this vital corollary.

Emory is indeed unusual in undertaking the challenge to develop an environment in which the two complementary domains of academic endeavor- teaching and research- flourish together to enhance our university. Teaching furthers questions in research, and research stimulates our teaching environment. I look forward to continuing efforts addressing this challenge.

Michelle Lampl
Assistant Professor of 

Report accurately articulates issues

Teaching at Emory comes at an important juncture in Emory's growth and evolution as a world-class university and will ensure that teaching excellence continues to be an institutional priority. Although the level of awareness and concern about teaching traditionally has been high on campus, the report does a great job of articulating the key issues we must address in our ongoing quest for teaching excellence.

An important issue addressed in the report concerns the balance between teaching and research. Its assertion that research excellence does not preclude teaching excellence-and its specific recommendation that teaching be formally valued as highly as research-is one of the strongest points of the report and will have significant impact.

While placing full responsibility for teaching excellence with faculty, the report reaffirms that teaching is already practiced well at Emory and that faculty care about teaching. Having such a strong foundation already in place will enable the University to focus on improving and enhancing teaching, introducing pedagogical innovations and adapting to the challenges that lie ahead.

Concerning specific recommendations, especially with regard to structured support for teaching, I would like to mention the University Teaching Fund that has recently been established by the Provost's Office and the University Senate; the UTF committee awards intramural grants to foster and promote teaching innovations and excellence, and particularly encourages interdisciplinary initiatives. In addition, individual schools and departments are establishing centers and committees to further the teaching mission. Teaching at Emory will provide added momentum to these initiatives, in addition to serving as a visionary as well as pragmatic guide in Emory's endeavor to excel as a teaching and research institution.

V.S. Sunderam
Dobbs Professor of 
Mathematics and 
Computer Science

Faculty responsible for defining,
applying teaching excellence

Teaching at Emory has the best chance of launching a good dialogue if we understand what it is and what it is not. It should be taken as a very early stage of a conversation that is energetic, hopeful, but not yet fully coherent. The document shows just how difficult it is to talk about teaching meaningfully at a level of University-wide abstraction.

It should not be seen as a "report from a representative group of faculty." The commission was appointed and charged by the president and provost, and at least a third of its members serve primarily in administrative roles. There is nothing wrong with a commission so composed, of course, but we should be clear about who's speaking when and from what vantage.

For there is something seriously wrong with the statement that "the administration has to be accountable to the University community in making sure that faculty members meet standards of excellence in teaching." In any first-rate university, the faculty- not the administration- has primary responsibility for defining and applying standards of excellence, whether in teaching or research. That is what peer review and professionalism mean. And no entity can be more closely identified with the "University community" than the faculty.

I'd rather use this space to talk about teaching than institutional politics or rhetoric, but if we don't get some of these responsibilities clear at the outset, we run the risk of losing our way. And we risk putting too much faith, as Teaching at Emory perhaps now does, in administrative remedies-top-down proclamations, a central university teaching center, more councils on interdisciplinarity and digital technologies, teaching "portfolios" for everyone-and too little in intellectual inquiry and the contagion of curiosity.

The commission acknowledges that teaching is "finally discipline-specific." The sooner we can move the discussion to that level the better. The college should lead the way here. Finding our best "balance between teaching and research" will require substantive discussion of what we teach and to what ends, as well as how and by what means. Let us begin at once to take a more thoughtful interest in our graduates. Who are they? Where do they go when they leave Emory? What do they think of their time here? What are our best hopes for the intellectual and professional lives of our graduates?

Having taught for more than half my life, I fully share the commission's sense that teaching is a vocation in which one is continually called on by hopes of "seeing the life of an individual and the life of the community changed for the better." Let us start asking some hard questions of and about our graduates-and of ourselves as thinkers-to see what those hopes and claims mean.

John Sitter
Candler Professor 
of English

Responses compiled by Karen Poremski, Graduate Assistant, Institutional Research.

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