Research, Teaching and Researching Teachers

My dissertation influences my teaching not so much through its content but by the lessons I learned writing it, says Peter Wayne Moe.

August 18, 2016

During a job interview last year, I was asked this question: “You’ve just written a highly specialized dissertation. How will it influence your teaching?”

I’ve been thinking a lot about that question since, not only for the assumption it makes -- that the research would, and even should, influence teaching -- but also for how it acknowledges the difficulty of it all, its “highly specialized” recognizing that advanced research would need to be somehow tailored to fit an undergraduate classroom. And for that, the question addresses how attuned a teacher is to that classroom, how aware a teacher is of what the students are grasping and how adept a teacher is at adapting subject matter to a given audience.

The question appears to have two possible answers. One looks backward: the teacher draws upon her previous scholarship for course material, teaching last year’s publication (or, if not the publication itself, then at least its arguments and findings). The other looks forward, the teacher teaching the course that will help her finish the next publication.

Both these responses -- using scholarship to feed teaching or teaching to feed scholarship -- depend upon content. That is, the relationship between research and teaching rests upon the ideas students learn.

But there’s another way to answer this question, one that depends upon practice.

Allow me to tell a story. When writing my dissertation, I ran up against two problems. The first was organization. I’d gathered so much research -- had written hundreds of pages of notes and numerous drafts of chapters -- that assembling it into some sort of intelligible, accessible, meaningful piece of writing was daunting. The second was a reading problem. When I turned in my third chapter, all my adviser said was that I was “too breezy with Derrida.” My adviser was gracious; I had fundamentally misread Derrida, reading his parroting of an argument as his own.

Where my dissertation influences my teaching is not so much through its content but by the lessons I learned writing it. I find that my students often have the same problems I did (and do). Their papers are disorganized, and they misread and misuse texts. As they break from the five-paragraph essay, they struggle to organize their ideas. As they read difficult texts, they are often too breezy with them. I don’t think this is a matter of me mapping my own writerly problems onto their work. They need to learn to read generously and with nuance, to craft subtle arguments in response to the needs of the given situation. I tell my students to return to the text (just as I had to), to reread those difficult passages, to engage the ideas they’d rather leave out because they are confusing and don’t fit within a tidy thesis. I tell them to think of the essay as a game of cards, discerning when to play their hand and seeing organization as a matter of timing, of strategy. I tell them these things because they are what my dissertation taught me.

If I were to answer that interview question today, I’d say that research influences the classroom not only through content but also as it makes teachers practitioners of our disciplines. Research sets us with our students, engaging in the same practices they are, working through similar problems side-by-side. Granted, these problems are encountered at different levels -- cutting-edge chemistry research is much different than the 101 lab -- but the core problems of reading the literature, developing a method, carrying out a project, writing it up and editing it are the same.

This relationship between research and teaching is partly one of empathy, yes, but more so, it is one where the students see the teacher as fellow practitioner, someone working in the field just as they are. The shift here is one of thinking about education not only as content driven but also as practice driven: the teacher and student engaged in the same practices, those practices shaping both to perform within the classroom, the guild, the academy. There is value in students seeing a teacher practicing her discipline, this enactment of scholarly practice teaching what it means and how one goes about producing knowledge.

A few days ago, I brought a draft of an article I was writing into my classroom. In a course where we workshop student writing daily, I want my students to see my own work in process. I want them to see my typos, my clumsy sentences, my disorganized arguments not yet formed. I asked their advice, and I took it.


Peter Wayne Moe is an assistant professor of English and the director of campus writing at Seattle Pacific University.


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