Teaching cannot come after research
"Those who can, do.
Those who can't teach.
Those who can't teach, get tenure at MIT."
That graffiti, scratched in the top of a Hayden Library desk, sums up the way a lot of people feel about teaching here. And well they might. Despite the presence of some truly outstanding teachers on campus, the Institute makes no bones about telling us what its first priority is. Research universities need to strike a balance between research and education -- but MIT students should be concerned that the scale here has tipped to far in the direction of research.
This attitude threatens both the quality of teaching at MIT and the very notion of what an educational institution is all about. Things will only get worse in the face of increasing financial pressure on the Institute. That is why we as students, and as a community, needed to take the opportunity at Wednesday's Institute Colloquium to openly assert again the importance of education at MIT.
Why should we care? If MIT keeps getting the best and brightest researchers to work here, isn't that enough?
One answer is that the quality of education suffers. The best researchers are not always the best teachers. We need some of both. Moreover, a culture that clearly rewards research over teaching is not exactly conducive to getting people to spend lots of time in the classroom. We learn this lesson early here. Ask a graduate student. Being a TA is lots of work and may be lots of fun; being an RA is how you get your thesis done.
Perhaps teaching is given some consideration in tenure decisions, but evidence such as the track record of the Baker Teaching Award suggests that teaching is not weighted enough. From the Award's inception in 1963 until 1988 (when the Baker Foundation began considering senior faculty), 41 percent of the recipients who were eligible and stayed at MIT actually got tenure. (Twelve award winners received tenure while 17 were denied it.) It has been noted that this yield compares favorably with the 30 to 40 percent average tenure rate for junior faculty, but the comparison belies an important point: the award winners are not average. They are some of the very best teachers at MIT. The fact that these inspiring educators have only marginally better success at MIT should give us pause.
MIT is not Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center or Bell Laboratories. What sets MIT apart is our educational mission, our conception of the university as a place dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge. Not pursuit of knowledge for the sake of a research contract, but for the sake of solving an interesting problem, answering an interesting question and showing others how to do the same. Research contracts certainly keep our work responsive to the needs of industry and society, but the freedom to explore and educate gives us a special quality that industry research centers will never have. Many of MIT's greatest contributions have sprung from the serendipitous pursuit of an interesting question.
Preserving an educational mission takes nurturing. People must feel that they have the time and resources to teach and to think. We need to find resources to support faculty and graduate students in the classroom. We need to find ways to assess the quality of teaching and make its measure a part of faculty advancement. But most of all, we need to make sure that teaching is not a second-class citizen in a world of research. We need to change our culture. We need to reinforce the notion that exploration and education go hand in hand.
We need to remind ourselves and our faculty that those who can teach should do it here.
Alan B. Davidson G->