FEd December 1997 Newsletter - Editorial: Are Teaching and Research Still Complementary?

December 1997



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Editorial: Are Teaching and Research Still Complementary?

Thomas D. Rossing

Traditionally, being a physics teacher has meant having the opportunity both to do physics and to teach physics. In my own career I am grateful for having been able to devote time and energy to both facets of our profession and never had to make a choice between teaching and research.

A few years ago, in a guest editorial "The teacher/researcher: An endangered species?" [American Journal of Physics 59, 487 (1991)], I pointed out that there are rather strong forces pulling physics teachers away from the traditional dual role of teacher and researcher. Young faculty members at many large universities are given the impression that tenure and promotion depend almost entirely on their success in research (measured all too often not by the quality of their publications but rather by the amount of outside funding they are able to attract). Innovative teaching, they are led to believe, is something you put off at least until you achieve tenure. Faculty members at many liberal arts colleges facing tight budgets are given heavy classroom teaching loads and little time or monetary support for research, even when it involves students.

It was therefore reassuring for me to serve two years on the selection committee for the APS Prize to a Faculty Member for Research in an Undergraduate Institution and to learn about the impressive research records of the nominees for this prize. It was almost an impossible task to single out the most outstanding candidate each year. Not only did these teachers have impressive records of publications, but they had closely involved undergraduate students in their research. I knew several of the candidates to be dedicated and outstanding teachers, and it is probably safe to assume that all of them were. So at least at undergraduate institutions, it appears that teaching and research are successfully coexisting and complementing each other, as they have traditionally done.

As I pointed out in my previous editorial, "teaching" physics and "doing" physics take on different meanings in different types of institutions. Doing physics at a large research university means original research and frequent publication of the results in scholarly journals; teaching physics includes being a mentor to graduate students as well as introducing freshmen in general physics courses to the excitement of physics. At a high school, doing physics might mean figuring out how a sophisticated toy or a familiar appliance operates in order to explain its physical principles to students. My activities in FEd remind me how much some research physicists in industry and at research laboratories contribute to teaching physics, largely as volunteers. They tell me that these teaching activities enrich their professional as well as their personal lives. We all remember times when fresh approaches to difficult problems occur to us when we are trying to explain our work to others.

So it appears that teaching physics and doing physics are still as complementary as they have traditionally been. I hope this tradition will continue in future years.