While prepping teaching materials for Developmental Psychology this semester, I suddenly remembered Taylor Mali. It’s been years since I listened to his poetry, but it’s still as poignant now as it was back then. (If you’re not familiar with his work, I strongly encourage you to check out his website.)
In particular, I’ve been reflecting on his poem ‘What Teachers Make‘ and how I feel about teaching. Being a teacher – making a difference! – is genuinely important to me. As is hopefully evident from my posts on teaching and mentorship, I enjoy working with students both in the lab and in the classroom. In sum, my intrinsic motivation to teach is one of the reasons that I decided to pursue a career in academia.
Yet it’s rare that teaching is openly celebrated. To the contrary, graduate students are often warned not to invest ‘too much time’ in developing our pedagogical skills, lest this distract from our research. How much time is ‘too much’ undoubtedly depends on whomever is giving the advice on the matter, but there are also more systematic cues to put teaching on the back burner. For example, in my department, if a graduate student receives outside funding, their teaching responsibilities are vastly reduced. In behaviorist terms, funding is therefore both a positive reinforcement (i.e., increasing funding for your research is good) and a negative reinforcement (i.e., decreasing your time spent on teaching is good). In sum, the overall message to graduate students is clear: Focus on your research.
This is not to say that advisors who counsel their graduate students to focus on research are necessarily doing the wrong thing. It makes perfect sense to focus on research if you intend to pursue a professorship at a research-focused institution! And this is not to say that I personally enjoy or value teaching more than research. What I mean to say is that the strict dichotomy of research and teaching may be a false one. Research and teaching can be combined in ways that benefit both the undergraduate students and the graduate instructors, and I’m grateful that my advisors have encouraged me to develop skills in both research and teaching.