The adage that a university's best researchers are usually its best teachers and the complaint that students aren't qualified to evaluate teaching quality are not true, James MacMahon, dean of the college of science at Utah State University, told an audience in Logan last week.
MacMahon said alarmingly few students in America are choosing careers in science, and the general population is scientifically illiterate, in part because scientists have done a poor job of communicating with students and the public, failed to make science interesting and palatable and haven't accommodated students who don't fit the "mold."It is often asserted, he said, that good researchers are the best teachers.
"As a generality, nothing is further from the truth. I have known excellent teachers who were also excellent researchers; however, I have known more excellent researchers who were simply dull," MacMahon observed. "I have also met people who had no recent research experience yet were some of the best informed and challenging individuals with whom I have ever interacted."
MacMahon explained he believes professors need to be intellectually alive, and research is just one aspect of that activity. But research often receives too much emphasis at a university because it is easier to quantify than teaching.
"We can count the number of grants a researcher brings in, the average number of dollars per grant, the number of papers they get published," he said. "When you have a (research) paper in your hands it's tangible, but if you turn someone's life around (in the classroom) you may never know it."
Scientists are initiated into what some call the "cult of dullness," MacMahon said, by being forced into a mold as students. Students who pursue science degrees learn jargon that is only understandable to people in their field. Graduate students learn to write papers that will not offend their graduate committees rather than showing creativity and enthusiasm for their work, he said.
But while students are busy learning to do research and get papers published, the dean said, little or no time is spent teaching them how to teach.
MacMahon was selected by a committee of USU honor students to give the 16th Annual Last Lecture at USU. Professors awarded the honor are asked to deliver the message they would give if it were in fact their last lecture.