— Why Do Teachers Perform Research?

July 19th, 2013
by Eric Grosfils

I’ve often been asked, as a faculty member at a small liberal arts college — a setting traditionally and fiercely dedicated to the pursuit of excellence in teaching — why I want to perform research. Sure it’s intellectually delightful to explore and to challenge myself to advance what we know about a research subject in which I’m interested, like physical volcanology or planetary science, but it takes a seemingly never-ending stream of energy to write successful grants, pursue questions that don’t always yield fruitful outcomes, publish the results obtained when something new is learned, etc. Wouldn’t that time and energy be better spent honing my skills as a teacher? An answer to this is articulated succinctly in a quote that comes from a 1-page article (on pg. 47 of course!) in the Summer 2013 Alumni Magazine published by my undergraduate alma mater, the College of William and Mary:

What is discovered in research one day is taught in the classroom the next, and then employed as a tool of economic development, innovation and, in some cases, national defense. The false notion that teaching in universities serves students but that research in universities does not betrays a profound misunderstanding of how academic institutions become great — and stay great.” — R.M. Gates, W&M ’65

There are clearly connections to teaching when I involve and mentor students, but it is important to recognize as well that my teaching and capabilities as an instructor usually benefit even when no students are directly involved in the research I perform. As a liberal arts instructor then my answer to the question I’m often asked is simple: I believe that doing research makes me a better teacher.

In my view, striving to become a more effective teacher is a goal which more than justifies the time and energy required to perform scholarly research, and I am grateful for the opportunities I have had in this arena. Of course, the fact that I also derive deep satisfaction from gaining new insights with the potential to help people directly, or that simply increase our knowledge in a more abstract way about the fascinating solar system in which we reside, is simply icing on the proverbial cake!

Addendum (7/27/13): In its 2013 list of top colleges in the US, Forbes ranked Pomona College #2 nationally. While ranking results like this should always be taken with a big grain of salt, I think it likely that the incredible dynamicism of my teacher-scholar colleagues plays a central role in our continued success where such evaluations are concerned…

Posted in Research, Students | Comments (0)