Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Research that Compliments Teaching

Like many departments, the IU Department of Telecommunications publishes an alumni newsletter. Ours is called the Telecomment and I'm happy to say that many of the latest versions are now available online right here.

Maybe it's because I'm an alum of the doctoral program of the department, or maybe because graduate education is something that is a large part of my life these days, but the latest issue--on graduate education and research in the Department--is something that makes me feel fortunate to be a part of such a wonderful place. Read that particular issue here.

But, no matter where I worked, the following article by IU T'comm faculty member and Associate Dean for Research in the College of Arts and Sciences, truly captures the important role research plays in liberal arts education.

IU as a Research I Institution
by Annie Lang, Professor of Telecommunications and Associate Dean for
Research in The College of Arts and Sciences

Along with her roles as professor, highly-respected and funded researcher, and mentor to graduate students, Lang is in her third year as Associate Dean for Research in the College of Arts and Sciences. It is from this overarching vantage point that she discusses university research as it complements teaching.

Have you ever wondered what it means to be a major research university? It's a curious thing that by and large the 30,000 undergraduates who flock to the Bloomington campus, including the 800 or so who major in Telecommunications, do not come because of the word "research." Indeed, the word, to the extent they consider it at all, likely brings to mind memories of all-nighters in the library or an exhausting morning searching the web for information on some obscure topic in order to turn in one's term paper on time. But for the 1900 faculty who work at IUB, research or creative activity is likely the fundamental reason why they are here. It's a curious thing how poorly understood is the role of research in a major research university.

Have you ever wondered what universities do? Probably your answer is that universities educate the populace. And indeed, if you read the newspaper, watch TV, listen to your legislators, or talk to average Americans, you would get the impression that that is the primary goal of the University. But let’s take a look at the larger picture. The primary goal of a major university is to produce, store, and pass on knowledge. Knowledge, not graduates, is the fundamental commodity of universities. The storage of knowledge results in great libraries, great reference works, great museums, and great archives. The passing on of knowledge results in students, graduate students, and graduates. The production of knowledge is research.

America’s system of major research universities is the greatest producer of knowledge that has ever existed in the world. Those who attempt to quantify such things suggest that knowledge is being produced at a rate never before seen in history and much of that production happens in our universities. Every faculty member in a major research university is driven by the desire to understand something as it has never been understood before. Their research and creative activities vary fantastically depending on discipline and training but their over arching goal is the same. They are motivated by the desire to produce new knowledge and new creations.

Faculty in the College of Arts & Sciences at IU produce a fantastic variety of new knowledge. In the Fine and Performing Arts that knowledge may consist of a new play, a new technique in digital lighting design, a new interpretation of a classic play, a sculpture, an interactive digital event, or a new type of kiln for firing pottery. In the foreign languages it might be a new translation of a classic work or a linguistic analysis of how language influences culture. In the sciences it might be identifying the functional relationships between fruit fly genes and behavior, inventing a new material, modeling climate, searching for new articles, or understanding how brain architecture and function influence substance abuse. In the humanities it may be an historical analysis of human society, a new film, a new poem or novel.

Like our colleagues around the university, the faculty of the Department of Telecommunications engage in a wide variety of research and creative activities to produce new knowledge about how people use the media to communicate, new ways of communicating, and new communications. Indeed, our department is almost a microcosm of the wide variety of research and creative activity that occurs across the University. Some of our faculty are critics and interpreters of the modern media environment, others study how various aspects of mediated messages influence psychological, emotional, and physiological responses in media users, yet others produce new media forms and content, while some analyze the impact of governmental laws and policy on the media industry. The result of all this research activity is to improve our understanding of how media and media industries affect individual media users, society, and the world.

It is not uncommon for people to think that the university’s research and teaching mission are in conflict. They may feel that too much time is spent on research and not enough time on teaching. They may feel that faculty involvement in research distracts them from teaching. They may feel that too much money is spent on research and not enough money is spent on teaching. Certainly, any great university must balance its research and teaching missions. But, that balance is not the balance of two unrelated but weighty burdens, rather it is the task of balancing two weights which are completely connected to one another by a myriad of flexible cords. Imagine a dumbbell, but instead of a stiff metal rod connecting the two weights, there were a thousand metal filaments of different lengths and strength connecting the two weights. The task becomes not one of balancing: research up, teaching down; teaching up, research down. Instead, the task is strengthening the filaments and supporting both ends.

What are the connections between research and teaching? Perhaps the strongest link between the two is graduate education as most doctoral students are in training to become faculty. They are learning how to produce new knowledge and they are learning how to pass that knowledge on to the next generation. They are students of what is not yet known and they are teachers of students. But this is by no means the only link. Every day faculty bring new knowledge, new research, and new ideas which arise from their research into the classroom. Faculty at a research university are not teaching old ideas buried in a textbook written by someone else. Instead, they are teaching living, changing, evolving knowledge which they have helped to create. They are experts teaching knowledge so new it has yet to be archived in a textbook. Faculty and graduate students bring the excitement of discovery and the understanding that knowledge is ever changing and ever-growing into the classroom. The university provides a wealth of opportunities for students who want to participate in knowledge building.

Faculty research provides the opportunity for students of all levels to take part in the university’s central undertaking--production of new knowledge and creative activity. Funding for research and creative activity provides much of the capital to build the laboratories, to buy the equipment, and to provide the venues which allow all of our students to take part in this endeavor. The new knowledge produced enriches not only the lives of the students involved but also enriches our culture, our science, and the everyday lives of people around the world.

In my role as Associate Dean for Research I have been awed by the range and depth of research and creative activity occurring in the College. I have been privileged to talk to hundreds of faculty about their research and to try to help them find the support they need to succeed at their particular endeavor. It has been a pleasure for me to learn about everything from Anna Karenina to zebra fish, with stops along the way at Creole languages, mars rocks, mud flumes, the mathematics of oncology, neutrino detectors, Sylvia Plath, telescopes, virtual worlds, and X-ray crystallography to name a few. I hope you find this issue of Telecomment to be an equally interesting journey through the range of research and creative activity going on in Telecommunications here at IU.

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