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July 3, 2017 / jpschimel

Why I hate it when people ask “What do you teach?”

I have never been introduced as a Professor at UCSB and not gotten the inevitable follow up question: “What do you teach?” I expect it, understand where it comes from, and I hate it.

Why my passion over an innocent expression of interest in my life?

Because people seeing my job as just a teacher reflects their deep misunderstanding of the university and its role in Society. A research university is more than just an advanced school. In fact, research universities are the fundamental “Social Infrastructure” of the modern world. And probably 99% of people haven’t a clue.

Most people only ever experience professors in our role as teachers. Even if they went on to medical or law school, they went to learn things that their professors already know. In that view, people are fundamentally wrong. Classroom teaching is important, and I love it. But is it truly the most important thing I do as a University of California Professor? No.

I got my BA from Middlebury, a Liberal Arts College where I got an excellent education. You don’t need a research university to teach undergraduates! That is illustrated even more strongly by the California State University, which awards more bachelor’s degrees than any other institution in the Nation.

But colleges and Cal State don’t produce their own most critical resource: Professors! They rely on research universities to do that. Without us, they fail.

A second key function that research universities do, of course, is research. Yet, that too can be done elsewhere. Independent research institutes, private companies, etc.—they all do research, although even companies generally can’t afford to invest in the deep fundamental research that underlies their applications. So, you don’t really need a research university to do research.

But, technology companies don’t produce their own most critical resource: Researchers and Engineers! They rely on research universities to do that. Without us, they fail.

Graduate, Ph.D.-level training, therefore, is the irreplaceable function carried out by research universities, such as UC. It is the one thing we do that no other entity can do. And, without it, society fails.

All the missions of the research university are important. As teachers, we pass along existing knowledge; as scholars, we create new knowledge; as mentors, we produce the next generation of scholars. Society relies on all three elements. These functions are completely, 100%, interwoven, but graduate education is the nexus.

Students come to UC because they want to study with top scholars. They want the deepest insights from the people who developed them, and to become involved in knowledge creation themselves. Because we attract the best students, we can do more with them and take them further. The University of California doesn’t provide better education because our faculty are better teachers than you’ll find at Cal State or Middlebury. The power of a UC education comes from the integration of undergraduate teaching with active scholarship. Our students don’t just learn things we already put in their textbooks, but things that aren’t in the textbooks yet.

It’s Ph.D. training that ultimately set us apart and makes UC the world’s most effective university system—a powerhouse for social and economic development. Training Ph.D. students, of course requires research opportunities for them to work on, weaving research and graduate training together at their root. Together faculty and graduate students form a coordinated team to produce new knowledge. Graduate students also serve as teaching assistants, and in doing so, learn to become teachers and mentors. They provide a key intermediate between faculty and undergraduates—they are closer in age and less intimidating than professors and so fill a role professors can’t. Thus, graduate training and undergraduate teaching are equally interwoven.

What makes the University of California great isn’t just great teaching by great faculty, but the integration of the pieces. We produce great undergraduates, but we also produce great scholars and great research. One can’t happen without the other. UC’s mission depends on the parts working together as a coordinated whole. California, the U.S., and the world depend on us for that singular interwoven mission.

So, it bothers me when people, and our political leaders, focus almost entirely on undergraduate education as the raison d’etre of the University of California and treat graduate training and research as at best, nice adjuncts. In fact, I could argue that they have it backwards. The essential, irreplaceable, mission is graduate training, with undergraduate education the adjunct!

So, yes, I hate it when people reduce my entire role as a professor to “What do you teach?”



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