Nonetheless, a number of professors have suggested to me that research actually aids in teaching, that professors who must be up on all the latest developments in their fields are somehow more effective or energetic teachers. There is not much to substantiate these anecdotal claims. And I find the notion that scholars in the humanities must keep up on the latest research in order to effectively teach, say, Chaucer or Rousseau, to be particularly silly. It is not to say that all of the research on such scholars is trivial but i think the time would be better spent learning to be a better lecturer or a more attentive essay grader.
But there is an interesting new study out suggesting that teaching can actually produce better researchers. Here's an account from the Chronicle of Higher Education:
Students who both taught and conducted research demonstrate significantly greater improvement in their abilities to generate testable hypotheses and design valid experiments," writes the lead author, David F. Feldon, an assistant professor at the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education. "These results indicate that teaching experience can contribute substantially to the improvement of essential research skills. To carry out their study, Mr. Feldon and his colleagues gathered two sets of research proposals from 95 beginning graduate students in STEM fields—science, technology, engineering, and math—at three universities in the Northeast from 2007 to 2010. About half of those students taught, on average, one undergraduate course. The other half had no teaching responsibilities. All of the graduate students submitted research proposals at the beginning of the academic year and provided revised versions at the end of the year. Mr. Feldon's team used a rubric to rate several various aspects of the students' research skills, including the context of the proposed study, framing of the hypotheses, attention paid to the validity and reliability of study methods, experimental design, and selection and presentation of data for analysis.
The graduate students who both taught and did research scored higher on those measures, the study found. The results suggest that those students exhibited both superior methodological skills and greater improvement in those skills compared with their peers who focused on research alone.
Feldon suggested two reasons for this connection. One is the idea that for students in the STEM fields, helping undergraduates set up experiments over and over improves their own ability to do it correctly. The other one, which I find more intriguing, is the idea that if you can explain these concepts you actually understand them better. It reminded me of a professor I interviewed at Williams College (who eventually won a national teaching award) who told me that he forces his students to explain concepts so that an 8-year-old might understand them. That ensures that students can't hide behind complex language to pretend they understand subjects when they actually don't. (I often worry that all of the academic jargon floating around has been invented simply to serve that purpose).
At any rate, as I have pointed out that there is almost no incentive in higher education for good undergraduate teaching. But maybe the idea that teaching can improve research will change that. If it does, it will demonstrate a backward sense of priorities in higher education, but it wouldn't be the first time.
A friend of mine, a very smart graduate student, who prior to go to going to get his PhD taught classes of 35 unruly boys math at a Catholic school in the Bronx, was complaining to me recently. His advisers keep pushing him to write and publish, but what he enjoys is teaching. I'm sure he has some great insights on intellectual history in the 16th century. But it strikes me as a complete shame that a man who has that much of a desire to teach (and a talent for it) that he can hold the attention of inner city teenage boys, would be pulled away from the classroom. Maybe if he can promise his advisers that teaching will help his research, they'll let him pursue his first love.