(Pasadena) Sometimes I find it strange that we pay scholars to teach young people. Scholarship and teaching are often such different affairs. A society could employ scholars to conduct research and teach apprentice scholars but never expect them to come into contact with regular undergraduates.
However, last weekend, I found myself at an academic conference session that reminded me why it’s important for researchers also to teach. It was a very strong panel of pyschologists who study adolescents’ engagement in school (not their civic engagement; their commitment to academic work). That’s an important subject, because kids who are disengaged tend to drop out of school and then pay a very serious price for the rest of their lives. The presentations described rigorous and relevant research. I had a somewhat detached perspective on the whole business, because I’ve never even taken a psychology course; I had few preconceptions or opinions about “scree charts,” “eigenvalues,” and “confirmatory factor analysis”–the topics of the discussion. It occurred to me that when social science works well, matters of great public importance are divided up into chunks that can be addressed through rigorous, cumulative research. Scholars build on previous work and use the most advanced available tools on manageable questions. Everyday presentations and discussions within the discipline tend to be narrow and technical. All of that is fine–as long as the whole enterprise moves toward important general conclusions. Thus it’s valuable for specialists to have to present their whole subject to novices who want to know why it matters. I watched last weekend’s presenters talk about factor-analysis with their colleagues from around the country and imagined them also lecturing to undergraduates about American education. It seemed to be just the right combination.