Our University – Teaching and Research

Job prospects for graduating students are as challenging as anyone has seen in decades.  There is scarcely a bright light to be found.  In a rush to address this complex socioeconomic and political issue some universities might be led to rethink mission and worry more about job placement than education.

While well-intentioned, this would be misguided.

Such a posture may work at a trade school or technical institute, many community colleges, and even some very limited-mission universities, but should not be the case at a research university.  At institutions like ours, teaching students to think and solve problems provides the framework for gainful employment.

Last August I traveled to Viet Nam, where a lament from national leaders about the inability of Vietnamese students to be productive in the work place was heard over and over.  It was interesting that the students I met, considerable in number, were thoughtful, kind, respectful, deferential, and seemed dedicated and hardworking.

Officials in higher education, leaders at U.S. embassies, presidents of the best universities in this nation are crying for new ideas to employ their people and make an economy work and concerned about the fact that the students are weak in the areas of problem solving and critical thinking.

Students can give back everything you give them but they can’t innovate.

I hear consternation at Wal-Mart, Denny’s, the state house, and at times, to my great discomfort, even on our campus about how too much emphasis is placed on research and not enough on teaching.  I suggest what my friends in all these places really want to say is that there is too much emphasis on poor research and poor teaching.

Research, a scholarly and creative activity in any manifestation, is the best way to teach students how to use what they learn here.  There is a point to the effort they expend here beyond the credential of a diploma.

When research and scholarship are driven by a passion to know, a desire to find a better way through something, a heart to develop a new way of seeing the world, or the beauty of a human voice, teaching bears its true fruit.

Until then, all you have is training or instruction; valuable, but not the mission appropriate to our university. Teaching that is not infused with new insights, the real by-product of research, is not teaching.

Ask the people of Vietnam.

The first department chair I ever worked with at LSU was Fountain Tillman Smothers, an old fashioned Tennessean and a character more unique even than his name.  Professor Smothers was the genuine article.

He believed distinctions between teaching and research were hollow and naive, and that teaching and research were connected like inhaling and exhaling….one without the other was of no use. He took a broad view of research, he was an aficionado of the arts and loved poetry, and offered quotes it like a Tennessee gentleman.

Fount knew that thinking people study, inquire and create.  They find solutions to problems.  They invent.  This creates work for others.  And while he never said it to me directly, he knew that thinking people would be successful in the market place.

At our university, the desire to know should create industriousness.  It should be driven toward discovery and transferred from teacher to student.

Students so equipped find work, or work finds them. They are educated, not trained.

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