Posted by: Monideepa Tarafdar | August 10, 2009

Rigor, Relevance, the Guru and Force Multipliers

I have often wondered – why are research and teaching regarded as two sides of the same coin? And if that is so, what happens when we teach courses in subjects that we do not research in?

Ancient Indian thought encapsulated in Hindu texts describes a teacher as  a “Guru” – one who is supposed to have great and holistic knowledge and intellectual authority in a certain area, and uses it to guide others in that area. To do the first, the guru has to first create or acquire and assimilate knowledge (i.e. research) and to do the second, has to disseminate it (i.e. publish and teach). Of course the idea at that time was to do both in the same area and generate closed loop “force multipliers” so that one could inform the other. There are two outcomes of this closed loop – and they form the bedrock on which education and learning rests. First, it ensures rigor in the material that is used for teaching. If one has to teach/publish and research in the same area, one can, because of one’s knowledge in the field, ensure that whatever one teaches comes from material that is peer-reviewed and peer-accepted, i.e., rigorous. (Whew, aren’t we happier to teach classes that deal with the subjects we research in, than those that do not?). Second, it ensures relevance. If the guru is supposed to teach what she researches in, then she has to do research in something that makes sense to teach – i.e. the research should be relevant to what the students of that particular area will benefit from (sometimes a tough proposition in today’s academic world!). Further, she has to “learn” from the teaching and feed it back into her research, something that is especially true in management fields.

This idea of force multipliers presents a conundrum that applies to our times. What if, as is very common, one has to teach something not related to one’s research? In that case, what happens to the “research” and “publish” components of the closed loop? Fortunately, dissemination of knowledge through journals and other publications is now fairly rapid such that it is possible to familiarize oneself with the research in a specific area. Assuming that such research is relevant to what students in that area need to know (again an assumption that is not always true), it is may therefore be possible to synthesize existing research and develop a useful course. However, even if that were so, there is a good chance that the teaching – research causal linkage may not happen since there is not much motivation for the teacher to make an intellectual contribution in that area. This leads to an absence of the “relevance” component of the loop. One could also argue that we then, somewhere along the line, cease to have “gurus”. Rather we have teachers, trainers and researchers – in separate fields, with rigor applied in isolation to relevance and possibly vice versa.

In an ideal world, we would research only that which is relevant to teaching, and teach only what we research in, neither of which is true in reality. Even so, we need to be aware that every time we teach something that is not related to our research, and whenever we do research in something that we are not sure if students would have much use knowing about, we are creating an absence of force multipliers and foregoing the benefits thereof.

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