Friday, October 09, 2015

On Being a Professor Who’s More Teacher than Scholar

a guest post by Arthur Bahr

To me, two of greatest things about BABEL are its members’ willingness to be radically open about what they most deeply believe and care about, and their ability to inspire others to be comparably open and honest. That sense of appreciation was renewed as I followed the How We Write posts several months ago—now brought to wonderful fruition!—and it inspired me to ask if I could share the following piece on this blog. 

A few words about what it is and how it came about. Lorna Gibson, a friend of mine in Materials Science and Engineering, asked me this summer if I would give a brief presentation this fall on how and why I became a professor, for a series she was organizing with Chancellor Cynthia Barnhart. The goal of the series is twofold: to demystify academia as a profession, especially for those who might be disinclined to think of it as “for them,” and to humanize MIT professors more generally. The first goal is important since fewer and fewer of our undergrads, whatever their background, are going on to grad school, and even those who do increasingly prefer industry to academia. The second goal is important since surveys suggest that a disturbingly large percentage of MIT undergrads graduate without knowing at least three professors well enough to feel comfortable asking them for a letter of recommendation. (My suspicion is that this problem afflicts many R1s, not just MIT, but that may be due to prejudices that I touch on more fully in the talk below!)

Since perfectionism, imposter syndrome, and fear of failure are real scourges among MIT students, and since I am lucky enough to have tenure and thus the ability to say what I please in official venues, I decided to be a bit radical in my talk, and come out as a teacher who happens to do scholarly work, rather than a scholar per se. And since figure skating has been on my mind a good deal, as some readers of this blog know, I decided to make that my metaphor. (Do watch the YouTube clips within the talk; they’re worth it!)

On Being a Professor Who’s More Teacher than Scholar

Today I’m going to talk about teaching, and figure skating, and scholarship, and imposter syndrome, because together they explain why I wanted to become a professor, why I almost left academia at various points (including after getting my job here at MIT), and why I’m really happy I didn’t.

I was a pretty serious figure skater as a kid, and when I started skating, in the late 80s, the sport had two very different components, only one of which most of you would recognize today: the jumping and spinning and music and costumes and all that. The other component consisted of using your blade to first draw and then retrace extremely precise patterns, or figures, onto a blank sheet of ice. This is how figure skating got its name: you literally skated figures. As part of an effort to demystify this rather strange-sounding practice, ABC aired this clip of Scott Hamilton skating a paragraph bracket at the 1984 Winter Olympics, and thanks to the magic of YouTube, here it is:

4:45-6:30 of

I was six years old when I saw that, and I was totally captivated. It was so weird and cool, this idea of trying to create those perfectly formed shapes on the ice. But as soon as I started staking seriously, I discovered that figures required a truly insane amount of work. Free skating came easy to me: I landed the first Axel I ever tried, and I got my double Lutz within a couples years of starting to skate, but with figures, my progress felt absolutely glacial. (See what I did there?) Instead of “I worked really hard at this jump and now I can rotate three times in the air instead of two,” it felt like, “I worked even harder at making my figures perfectly round and now instead of really ugly, bulgy circles I make very slightly less ugly, very slightly less bulgy circles.” This is not a very satisfying form of accomplishment—especially if you’re, say, twelve. As a result, I launched even more enthusiastically into my free skating, where I could express myself and play to the crowd (even if the crowd in question was just my mom drinking her thermos of coffee at 5 in the morning, God bless her).

So what has this got to do with my other topics? Well, I started teaching around the same time, when I was twelve and my little sister was six. That seemed the right moment for her to learn fractions, so I asked for a miniature blackboard for Christmas, and I set up a school for our legions of stuffed animals, and she helped them do their quizzes, and I graded them and I had office hours, and this is what I did for fun, mind you. And ever since, teaching has reminded me of free skating, since they’re both a kind of performance that tries to draw the audience in and make everyone in the room (or ice rink) feel like part of a shared experience. When you’re on, you’re both totally focused on what you’re doing in the moment and somehow going with a flow that’s bigger than you are and that you don’t totally understand. But of course you’re not always on: sometimes your grand pedagogical gambit is a flop, sometimes you fall on all five of your jumps, and sometimes it’s not a disaster, it all just feels sort of flat for no obvious reason. And those failures both sting and make you want to get back out there and nail it the next time.

Now I’m not breaking new ground here: any musician or athlete or actor will instantly recognize both kinds of feelings I just described, the “everything is clicking, this is awesome” and the “gah, that was awful … brood … I need to get out there and nail it next time” experiences. I go into this similarity between free skating and teaching because the other side of my job—of any professor’s job—is research, and research has always felt to me like compulsory figures. While they were sometimes rewarding, figures were not fun; they were work, grinding, repetitive labor. Any progress I made at them was nearly invisible to me and felt totally invisible to everyone else. And here it’s worth emphasizing how solitary, even lonely, research in the humanities can be. Unlike in engineering or the sciences, we generally don’t have labs or research groups: it’s just you, your books, and your thoughts, which is almost exactly how the famous figure skating coach Slavka Kohut described doing figures: “You’re alone with your thoughts, and you’re competing against yourself. It’s how you place your thoughts with your feet, and how the two work together.” This kind of isolated, introverted work is just not what I have ever felt like I’m best at. But it’s not even really a question of what you’re good at; it’s more about what’s exciting to you, what gets you up in the morning, how you self-identify. Sort of like are you a cat person or a dog person: are you a figures skater or a free skater? I’m a free skater; I’m a teacher.

And this is where we get to imposter syndrome. Whatever your academic discipline, teaching is a tiny, sometimes even nonexistent part of the training you get in a PhD program—and that right there tells you all you need to know about academia’s priorities. In my department at UC Berkeley, teaching was presented as the chore you had to do to get your ridiculously paltry stipend if you weren’t good enough at research (i.e., “smart enough”) to get a fellowship, and because of that, and gazillions of other cues given by your professors and fellow grad students, it was obvious that research is where it’s at. Which means that if you’re more inspired by teaching—if the reason you first wanted to become a professor is so that you could share your passion for the material with students—you quickly realize that you’re a cat person in a dog person’s world.

Now, it should surprise none of you to learn that when MIT hires professors, and when it considers them for raises and promotion and the all-important tenure, it cares above all about research. In this it is like every other R1 (which is professor shorthand for “first-tier research university”), and R1 jobs are the jobs that, as soon as you start grad school, you’re trained to believe that you should want, partly because by definition people get PhD’s at research universities, whose professors tend to absorb their institutions’ priorities and incentive structures into their own value systems.

So when I went on the job market and saw an assistant professorship in medieval literature at MIT, I didn’t for a moment think I would get the job. I didn’t even want the job. I wanted to end up at a small liberal arts college like the one I went to, so I could teach intimate seminars of smart, earnest English majors and have them over for dinner at the end of the semester to meet my boyfriend and my cats. I had it all planned out, and the only reason I even applied is that the academic job market in the humanities is so awful that you just apply for all the jobs and worry about happiness later, if at all. (Of course the notion that happiness is a second- or even third-order concern also says something pretty damning about academic culture. We can talk about that later if you want.) So when I actually did get the job, I was super excited but also sort of confused. It was as if I’d won the figures event at a competition—which I can assure you I never did—and I felt like saying to my soon-to-be colleauges, “I know you’re the judges and all, but how carefully did you actually look at my figures? Can I free skate for you? That’s what I’m actually good at.” And they were like, “No, we don’t actually need to see your free skating [my flyback had no teaching demonstration or interaction with students] since figures is what we really care about. In fact, as soon as you sign this offer letter, you’re going to be competing under a system in which figures are worth 95% of your score and free skating is worth 5%, or maybe it’s 90/10, or 98/2, I mean of course there isn’t a mathematical formula, we evaluate everyone on a holistic and case-by-case basis, etc. … BUT DON’T FORGET, figures are what really matter. Oh, also, if your figures aren’t good enough, after seven years we’ll fire you and you’ll probably never skate again.”

The reality of MIT’s tenure system, which I just translated into figure skating terms, didn’t sink in until I arrived here. And that’s when I really panicked, since I was sure that even though I’d somehow fooled them in my interview and my job talk, there was no way I could pretend to be a dog person for seven years. Sooner or later, and probably sooner, one of the judges was going to look at my tracings and get this tone of incredulous scorn in her voice as she said, “How did you even manage to pass your first figure test?” (That is a quote from a judge who failed me on a later, harder test.) And so I did what I did as a skater—as a kid: I threw myself into the stuff I already knew I was good at and kind of ignored my research for the first year and a half or two years I was here. (I do not advise doing this, by the way.) I looked for other jobs. I even talked to my senior faculty mentor about whether I could somehow convert my professorship to a lecturer position, which would have meant a huge cut in pay, prestige, and job security. (He talked me out of it, for which I will always be grateful to Noel Jackson.)

Underlying all this was an almost crippling fear of failure. I’d reached the seductive conclusion that if I didn’t really try, I couldn’t really fail. If I focused almost exclusively on my teaching, which I really enjoyed, and didn’t fully commit to the research that I knew MIT considered incalculably more important, then when I got fired I could say to myself and my family and my friends and my advisor and all the people I was sure to disappoint, “You know, it just wasn’t a good fit; I’m a cat person, they’re dog people; I’ll be so much happier at the University of Northeastern South Dakota” or whatever backwater I got consigned to. (For the record, my dad is from South Dakota, so I can make South Dakota jokes.) Imposter syndrome and fear of failure are both real scourges among students at MIT, so I want to go on the record and say that lots of your professors, like me, struggle with them, too.

Please note that I say “struggle,” in the present tense. These are not fights that you ever conclusively win. Grappling with imposter syndrome and fear of failure and perfectionism (yet another scourge) is more like learning to live with addiction: the shadows are always there, and you just have to develop coping mechanisms to make it through, partly by being open and honest about those struggles. So this talk doesn’t come with an inspirational conclusion about how I ultimately conquered my fears and became the consummate dog person I never realized I could be. I would still rather design a cool new class than write a scholarly article. I will always be happier and more alive in a classroom than I ever will be alone with my books. That’s who I am. Learning to say, “I am not a scholar, per se; I’m a teacher who happens to do scholarly work,” was incredibly liberating, not just because it was true, but also because it helped me separate the research part of my job from my sense of self. Scholarship was just that, a job, a job that I could learn to enjoy and be good at, but not some kind of calling or vocation, and that was fine. For other friends and colleagues whom I deeply respect, it’s the other way around, and that’s also fine. Teachers aren’t inherently nobler, any more than scholars are inherently smarter. All this helped mitigate the miasma of fear that surrounded my all-important “scholarly production,” and that was crucial, because in scholarship, just like in teaching (and figures, and free skating), fear cripples performance. Scholarship that’s afraid to fail, to be found out, to be seen to be stupid, is almost always boring, and I’d infinitely rather read an essay that I passionately disagree with or even hate than one that puts me to sleep.

As soon as I stopped feeling guilty about not passionately loving research, it was easier to believe that it did actually have value—and here I’m referring not to mine in particular, but rather to humanistic scholarship more generally. Guilty secret number whatever: it has always been really hard for me to feel like my scholarship matters, like, at all. I wrote a book about Chaucer and medieval manuscripts. Some people thought it was great and at least one very cranky reviewer thought it was awful, but fortunately enough people thought it was good enough that I got tenure. But even if everyone thought it was the most brilliant book about medieval manuscripts EVER, it still wouldn’t feel as significant to me as teaching a class in which a few of my students arrived at new ways of looking at the world. Like many clichés, the one about teachers changing lives is a cliché because it’s true, and it's hard for me to imagine anyone's life being changed by reading my book or, quite frankly, ANOYNE’S book about medieval literature. Here again, comparison with compulsory figures is instructive. Lots of skaters hated figures not just because they found them boring and lonely, but also because they felt useless. How on earth did etching perfect circles help us connect with an audience, communicate to others the joy of movement, or music, the way free skating did? Lots of brilliant figures skaters were terrible free skaters, just like lots of brilliant scholars are terrible teachers.

Partly because no one could articulate a compelling answer to these kinds of questions, compulsory figures were eliminated from international competition in 1991—with the result that, today, most of you have never heard of them. This initially made adolescent skating Arthur very happy, but the joy faded surprisingly quickly. Free skating somehow felt less fun, and ironically less free, when it was no longer the activity that I had to earn by diligently practicing my figures for an hour. As soon as I wasn’t doing them any more, I appreciated how complementary these two components of the sport really were. Not only did figures instill a truly ferocious degree of mental discipline and focus, they also forced you to be aware of every single part of your body, since they were so precise, the margin for error so tiny, that a single muscle out of place literally anywhere could mess up your turn at the top of the circle, or your change of edge, or any of the gazillion of other things that were there to be messed up. In this sense, figures were a bit like basic (as opposed to applied) research in the sciences: intense labor with no immediately obvious practical value, but with the potential to pay off in unanticipated ways down the road. (Case in point: I started rock climbing and bouldering last year, and when I was struggling, my best friend who’s a hard-core climber said, “Just remember, every part of your body matters, not just your arms,” and I was like, “oh, it’s figures,” and then I thought about each problem on the climbing wall like it was a figure, and it made a big difference!)

But let’s even concede a skeptic’s contention that skating compulsory figures, or deciphering the handwriting of medieval manuscripts, isn’t useful. They are nonetheless impressive, specialized skills. Our word technology comes from the Greek word techne, which means skill, art, or craft—your ability to make or do something as opposed to simply comprehend or contemplate it in the abstract. So etymologically, technology is our shared set of crafts, skills, and capacities. When one of those skills is forgotten, rendered obsolete by a more recent form of technology (or a changing economy), something of our shared heritage is lost. And this is why the demise of figures makes me so sad. Done well, both the activity and the results are very beautiful, as this short clip of Debi Thomas doing a paragraph loop at the 1988 Olympics shows:

1:03-1:47 of

But pretty soon, the coaches who knew how to teach figures start will dying off, and then this craft will no longer be part of our shared human technology. Now I’m not seriously proposing that we all go back to thatching the roofs of our kerosene-lit cottages, or that MIT become the Massachusetts Institute for the Preservation of Historically Significant and Inherently Beautiful but Obsolete Skill-Sets (although that would make us Miph-Si-Boss, which given our love of inscrutable acronyms seems quite appropriate). But I do think that it behooves all academics—and everyone contemplating an academic career, as I hope some of you are—to adopt a more capacious understanding of what’s worth learning and doing.

One of my colleagues in medieval studies calls the modern university the “brainforest” [shoutout to LeVostreGC!] and I think it’s a valuable pun because like the Amazon, the university is a complex ecosystem. Some parts are less obviously attractive or useful than others, but the depth, the richness, and even the utility of the whole are diminished when any particular constituent piece atrophies or is clear-cut out of existence. This is not just an exhortation to remember medieval literature when you’re an engineering professor—or rich alum—on some committee whose purse-strings control the fate of my future colleagues. It’s also a reminder to me, when I feel like my research doesn’t matter, that it actually does. Not in the same way as my teaching, but as part of an infinitely complicated universe of skills and modes of thinking and doing things with your brain. I wish that the skating community had appreciated figures enough to save them, but their loss inspires me to do my damnedest not to let the same thing happen to the practice of interpreting old poems that don’t get read that much any more. Most of the time I don’t love doing research—but I feel incredibly grateful that I have to. Most of the time I do love teaching—and I feel incredibly lucky that I get to. And that tension keeps both activities livelier and more vital than either would be by itself.


The conversation after the talk was quite wide-ranging. People had a lot of questions about the nitty-gritty of figure skating, so we spent a good deal of time on that, but a number of people also said they had experiences similar to mine, of feeling like a bad academic or even a bad person for valuing teaching over research. One said it’s why he left academia for biotech after getting his PhD in biology from Cornell. Another, a grad student in Mechanical Engineering at MIT, said that when she asked her advisor how she might get a more-teaching-than-research-oriented job, he said bluntly, “Those don’t exist.” And even at less research-intensive institutions than MIT, “scholarly production” (which is generally equated with “published peer-reviewed writing,” although it shouldn’t be) is often far more important than teaching for tenure and promotion. (Of course, how to fairly measure teaching effectiveness is a vexed question, but it’s not clear to me that measures of scholarly excellence are any less problematic; both are subjective, manipulable, inflected by unconscious bias, etc.)

As for what I’d like people to take away from all this: I’d encourage everyone working with graduate students to make sure those students know that there are lots of different ways of being a professor; that the version of “professor” their advisors chose to (or had to) embody in order to succeed at an R1 is not the only possible or admirable one. I suspect that most of us would agree with that proposition if pressed, but such a belief—in the legitimate diversity of values and goals within academia—often fails to make it through to grad students. Making sure we all convey that belief will help keep our profession attractive to the widest possible range of smart, committed people—and, in turn, give our profession a broad and diverse set of advocates for the challenging times we face now, and seem sure to face in the future. 


Melissa said...

Thank you for a wonderful post! Not only fascinating (I had no idea of the origins of figure skating!) but also so, so important as a reminder that while research is at the center of a professor's work, teaching can be at the heart of it. Indeed, the most memorable professors in my personal trajectory have always been those who married their teaching and research into a synergistic performance of their professional duties--the Debi Thomases and Scott Hamills of the academic world who marry their technique with their passion, and the kind of professor I have trained to become.

Jean Peccoud said...

Thank you for taking the time of sharing this experience that many of us relate to. When working with undergraduate and graduate students, I try to broaden their horizon by helping them imagine a future outside of academia. The unfortunate consequence of the elitism of the academic system is that we often present as failure leaving the system to take a job outside of academia. We make it known to students that only the best undergrads will make it to graduate programs. Graduate students know that only the best of them will get faculty positions. As teachers, it is important to help them develop a personal project aligned with their talents, aspiration, and personality. We need to foster a journey of self-discovery that is not tainted by our personal aspirations. This soul searching process is necessary to develop not only the next generation of outstanding teachers and scholars but also executives and leaders our country will need to face the challenges of tomorrow.