Fridays with Fuhrmann: Striking the Balance

Associate Professor Tim Havens and graduate students
Associate Professor Tim Havens and graduate students

Happy New Year! Today marks the end of Fiscal Year 2017 at Michigan Tech, as it does for many other universities and businesses. This is the year boundary that really matters for anyone doing accounting or record-keeping at the university. For the past couple of weeks, a lot of staff members have been hard at work, making sure our financial house is in order. In July we will start the process of looking back at the past year, preparing year-end reports, and seeing how we did relative to a lot of different metrics. Of course, at the same time we are starting all over again with FY 2018. It’s the circle of life.

Earlier this month I offered some views on our fundamental motivation for being in this line of work – why we teach and why we do research. Today I thought it would be good to take a look at the interplay between teaching and research in the university setting.

In one of those earlier posts I made the observation that we are not a business, rather we are an institution that serves the public good and as such we have multiple stakeholders that we try to keep happy. That same notion about multiple stakeholders holds true at the individual faculty member as well, and if not managed properly it can lead to a lot of stress. In one sense the faculty members are accountable to only one person – me, the department chair – but in reality their performance depends in large part on keeping a lot of other people happy. On the teaching side, there are the students of course, one of our most important constituencies, and sometimes the parents, who generally only surface when things are not going well. There are also department colleagues, as we depend on each other to teach all the necessary prerequisite material for the next course or courses, to make sure a course plays its proper role in the overall curriculum, and to provide documentation needed for accreditation. In research, faculty are held accountable by their external program managers, who often do not understand that we have multiple obligations, by their national and international professional colleagues who provide anonymous peer review of the work, and by journal editors and conference organizers who expect timely compliance with paper reviews and other research-related activity. It’s a lot to juggle!

Even if we simply divide our activity into two broad areas, teaching and research, it can be a struggle to find the right balance between the two. They are often seen to be in conflict, two polar opposites competing for our attention. Students wonder why the faculty are wasting time doing research when they should be available 24/7 for questions and concerns. Research sponsors wonder why faculty are putting so much into teaching when they should be setting the world on fire with their latest scholarly achievements. Faculty members themselves are conflicted, feeling that they enjoy one activity while getting messages that they should spend more time on the other. Sometimes those are mixed messages, since at a place like Michigan Tech there are multiple gatekeepers for promotion and tenure, and there is the concern that different people have different opinions about what is important.

I believe that the answer to this conflict is not to see this as a conflict at all. Even though this is hard to pull off all the time, I still believe in the old-fashioned notion of the teacher-scholar, the person who has a high-level research or scholarly program in his or her own right, and is passionate about educating the next generation of students to make their own contributions to the field. This is really where the magic happens at a university. People who are brilliant scientists, engineers, mathematicians, or thinkers in any discipline, and are not jerks about it but instead really care about students and their education, are like gold at a place like Michigan Tech. The trick to making this work is to see that teaching and research are not pulling in opposite directions but are actually two sides of the same coin – the quest for new knowledge.

A strong research program can have a beneficial impact on one’s teaching. Sometimes we think that the teacher brings the results of his or her latest cutting-edge research into the classroom, keeping students current and motivated, but actually I do not think that is completely correct. Especially if we are talking about undergraduates, most cutting edge technology is beyond them – they are just not ready. After all, the faculty member has a head start on them by at least five years and probably more like 20 or 30. I think the real value of the research program, as it applies to teaching, is that it allows the teacher to know what is important and what is not in the fundamentals. In fact, it gives the faculty member the certainty that the fundamentals really are important, and that certainty will lead to clarity and passion. Sometimes we have to say “trust me, you really need to know this and you will thank me someday”. I get that that does not always work without some taste of good things to come. Here the faculty need to lead by example, demonstrating the kinds of things that can be accomplished if you follow their lead, without overwhelming students with details beyond their comprehension (the so-called “fire hose of knowledge.”)

The mutual benefits of teaching and research go the other direction too. Some of the key attributes of good teaching are, one has to be prepared, one has to be organized, and one has to communicate effectively. The discipline that comes with doing those three things on a regular weekly schedule can pay huge dividends in research programs, where often there is not the same pressure to break one big task down into lots of little tasks. The best teachers are the ones who know how to explain difficult concepts clearly, and clear communication goes hand-in-hand with clear thinking. I have often had the experience where just talking about some problem I am wrestling with leads to new and better ways of thinking about it. Put another way, in order to understand a problem one needs to be able to explain it well, and if you do not understand the problem chances are you are not going to understand the solution. Again, it all comes back to the fact that seeking knowledge and communicating knowledge are really not all that far apart; quite the opposite, they are complementary.

The way we learn things and the way we explain them are often quite different. When I think I know something pretty well, I can lay it out in a linear fashion: I say “here is concept A, which leads to concept B, which in turn implies concept C.” Mathematical proofs usually work this way. If I have been working on something for a while, and having some success, it is very satisfying to put things down in a neat set of notes with the proper flow of one idea into the next. The problem is, with 99% certainty that is not the way I learned the material. Usually I learn things in a more circular fashion, going forward and back and sometimes in random directions, figuring out bits and pieces and eventually figuring out how they are linked together. When the pieces are in place, and I want to convince someone of my results, then my explanation will be nice and linear. This is precisely how most of us organize our lectures and our courses: a nice logical flow from the beginning to the end. Actually I think this is perfectly acceptable. We just have to understand that our students, just like us, are not going to learn the material that way. Instead, they will get part of the lecture, then through homework, labs, and studying for tests they will go around and around in circles until it starts to make sense. Perhaps the goal should not be to have students comprehend a topic in that nice linear fashion from the very beginning, but rather to come to a linear understanding of that topic in the end. My point here is that this circular or random nature of discovery/learning, and the linear nature of understanding/explaining, are quite complementary and are mirrored in the way we do teaching and research.

Bringing this closer to home, I thought I would brag a little bit about one of our own. Tim Havens, an associate professor with a joint appointment in ECE and Computer Science, has found the sweet spot when it comes to balancing teaching and research. He is one of our most active researchers in the ECE Department, with a portfolio of funded projects in computational intelligence and signal processing totaling about $250k per year in research expenditures. He is the Director of the Center for Data Sciences, within the Institute for Computing and Cybersystems, and is also the Director of the non-departmental MS in Data Sciences professional degree program. As a teacher, he can cover just about anything in the computer engineering curriculum, from sophomore-level digital logic design to graduate-level machine learning, and he always gets outstanding student course evaluations. Having been to several of his recent graduate student thesis and dissertation defenses, I am impressed by the quality of his students’ work, and by the level of enthusiasm and camaraderie among the students in his research group. He is an outstanding example for all of us. Tim, feel free to use the comment feature of this blog if you want to tell us how you do it.

Next week is Fourth of July – have a safe and happy holiday!

– Dan

Daniel R. Fuhrmann
Dave House Professor and Chair
Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering
Michigan Technological University