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As the Denver Post noted in two columns in today’s (Sunday, 3.18.12) Perspective section ( and, the value of a college education suffers from the lack of emphasis on the teaching ability of college professors. The fact is, universities hire and retain professors on the basis of their research and writing skills and efforts (“publish or perish”), rather than on the basis of their teaching skills and efforts. “Teaching colleges” are an exception to this rule, focused on teaching rather than research, but perhaps lose something in the bargain as well. Arguably, immersing young people in an evironment that is home to the most brilliant minds in the world, laden with cutting edge insights and the highest levels of cognitive activity, has a benefit not to be lightly dismissed. But the transmission of that brilliance to the students who fill the lecture halls needs to be accomplished in a manner a bit more intentional than mere osmosis. If we want our young adults to receive a high quality college education, we need to ensure that there is a system in place designed to deliver it.

American universities not only fail in the degree to which they ensure that they are effective educational (as well as research) institutions, but also in the degree to which the highly specialized enclaves of cutting-edge thought cross-fertilize one another. Careers are built on complete immersion in very narrowly defined and information-intensive academic microcosms. There are many benefits to this, but some costs as well. We have conceptually fractured reality into its tiniest components, but have done little to conceptually reassemble it. This affects not only the breadth and depth and quality of the insights achieved through this process, but also increases the distance between professors and students, turning too many professors, as Ms. Bullard noted in her collumn in The Denver Post, into “a disheveled man…mumbling half to himself.”

It’s tempting to capture these dual challenges with pithy oversimplification, stating that the remedy to these two problems is more specialization along the teaching/research continuum, and less specialization among the various content areas. Unfortunately, though I like the simplicity and balance of that statement, it fails to capture the reality of what I am proposing: I am really suggesting that we build more and better bridges, and more fully develop the regions that form their destinations.

We need a new emphasis on the specialization of teaching, but not a specialization which is completely detached from the academic vibrancy and richness that is the modern university. One way to accomplish this might be to hire teachers to teach, and research professors to do research, and to allow the two groups to overlap and articulate with one another both organically and by design. Those brilliant professors who are great researchers but lousy teachers can spend all of their time doing research. Those who are both great teachers and great researchers can spend some of their time on both, as is currently the case, but with a more balanced emphasis and more balanced rewards for excellence in each endeavor. Those who are great teachers but not particularly talented researchers, or not particularly interested in doing research, can be hired on exclusively as teachers.

It would be a professional expectation of all university teachers that they demonstrate the highest levels of expertise in their field, completely comparable to those of their research counterparts, and to be fully versed in what their colleagues are doing, including their colleagues who are engaged only in research. But it would also be a professional expectation that they become broadly, as well as deeply, educated, that they are aware of developments in other disciplines, even completely unrelated disciplines (“unrelated,” that is, by conventional modes of thinking).

Part of what professors specializing more in teaching could bring to modern universities is more cross-fertilization, more bridges among disciplines, helping students to learn not just the discipline that defines the primary class material, but also the connections between that discipline and others, between its insights and insights being developed in very different subject areas.

But teachers need to teach one another as well as those students who are seated in the classrooms and lecture halls. And research professors would benefit from more catalysts to the imagination and to the processes of inspiration and insight coming from other, sometimes very different disciplines. So I would add one more layer of innovation to our universities: A “Department of Interdisciplinary Synthesis.”

While we do not want to lose the benefits of the intense specialization which is so robustly producing such finely tuned and precise insights into the nature of the world and universe we occupy, we should seek to gain the further benefits of how these insights articulate with one another, form surprising areas of interdisciplinary coherence, generate surprisingly robust and useful understandings that not only cross disciplinary boundaries, but leap across disciplinary spaces that have heretofore been considered as wide a gulf as that between galaxies.

One basis for such interdisciplinary synthesis is Complex Dynamical Systems Analysis (what is often thought of as “Chaos Theory”). Rather than a focus based on subject area, it is a focus based on the choice of lens through which to understand subject areas. Complex Dynamical Systems Analysis has applications throughout all of the social sciences (see, e.g., my series of essays in the first box at Catalogue of Selected Posts), physics, biology and the life sciences, meteorology, philosophy, literature, and the fine arts (including music and visual arts), to name a few. It is, in a sense, a naturally-occurring cross-fertilizing cognitive enzyme.

Other such “enzymes” undoubtedly exist as well. Discovering and utilizing them would be a very valuable academic enterprise, one which currently occurs mostly on the margins of ultra-specialization rather than in the center of an effort to build bridges among those islands of thought. We live not only in a mind-bogglingly complex and subtle reality, the understanding of which benefits from extreme specialization, but also a coherent reality, the understanding of which benefits from synthesizing the products that extreme specialization. And the challenge is not only to produce and synthesize these products of human genius, but also to disseminate them, and allow them to extend more broadly into the population and to articulate more thoroughly with the genius of the many.

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  • sblecher:

    To put it even more simply, given the choice most students would benefit more from small to medium-size colleges that specialize in undergraduate curricula. In big research universities the famous-professors rarely come in contact with undergraduates, and spend much of their time winning research contacts for their respective institutions. Many of the undergraduate courses are taught by very low-ranking faculty members. In a good undergraduate college, students are taught by associate and full professors, and the emphasis is on teaching. If a student wants to go on to graduate school he can apply to a large institution, and if accepted he would receive instruction and advice from the renowned professors.

  • One point of correction, Steve: I’ve attended five major universities and taught at two, and in not one case has any professor in any of the departments with which I’ve been associated been exempted from teaching undergrad classes. I’ve known world-class, Nobel prize winning scholars, all of whom have had undergrad classes, that they have personally taught, as part of their responsibities. I’m sure there are instances when this is not the case, but they are the exception rather than the rule.

    Yes, many classes are taught by TA’s, and, yes, in some cases junior faculty members might be assigned a larger teaching burden than senior facultry members (though I don’t recall that that was particularly the case in my experience), but, judging from my personal experience, it’s a myth that the “great scholars” don’t actually teach undergrad classes. Most do, though not always very well.

    (I think part of the reason for this myth is the way in which supply and demand, and economics, play out in the university system: There are way too few “great scholars” employed at any university to cover all undergrad classes. Also, each is given just one or two undergrad classes each semester, the emphasis being on research. The rest of the classes are covered by TA’s and junior faculty, the latter of which may have, on average, a slightly higher undergrad teaching burden than senior faculty.)

  • sblecher:

    What I said wasn’t absolutely true. For example, Richard Feynman like to teach undergraduates, but in graduate institutes a lot of the faculty don’t teach undergraduate courses.

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