Saturday, July 11, 2015

The Teaching Research Taboo

A few years ago, I started noticing that some of my esteemed colleagues in the HCI research community (such as Scott Klemmer, also Andy Ko, and others) were talking about and publishing on their work in HCI/CS education. This was really exciting and surprising and I immediately thought: “If they can do it, why can’t I? I’m doing interesting things with CS education, too!” As Derek Sivers says in his TED talk: “It only takes one follower to turn a lone nut into a leader”. (Not really calling you a nut, Scott!) The point is that it can feel much less risky to try something when you have well-respected colleagues who are also doing that thing.

One of the barriers to adoption of curricular innovation for computing faculty members is the perception that innovating, adapting best teaching practices and conducting research into teaching is not valued by research peers. If a faculty member thinks that external reference letter writers are unlikely to value such contributions when they are up for tenure or promotion, the effects are actually two-fold: they may not engage in such work, or if they do, they may be unlikely to discuss it with their peers at their core research conferences and meetings.

It seems relatively uncommon for research-track CS faculty to discuss their teaching at conferences and research meetings (no, I’m not saying it never happens, but it is rarely the focus, except at CS education conferences like SIGCSE and ICER). So, while we are likely aware of our colleagues’ research projects, we may not realize that our colleagues are experimenting with innovative teaching methods, trying out new learning technologies or adapting some best practices related to active learning. Because we don’t talk about it, we may think it’s not happening and this can lead to us not wanting to talk about our own innovations. We think our colleagues only value core research, so that is what we focus our own discussions on.

This ‘teaching research taboo’ brings up some interesting questions:

1.     Would some faculty members be more willing to innovate, adapt best practices and try new teaching methodologies if they knew their research peers were also doing this?
2.     If the answer to #1 is yes, how can we encourage researchers to take the time to discuss their teaching (and teaching research) when at conferences and meetings?
3.     Would it be helpful to identify top researchers in particular CS areas and invite those researchers to visit, specifically to talk about their teaching innovations? Could this make a difference in areas where faculty are not buying in to active learning and other innovations?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I think there’s something here. I say let’s figure out how to ditch the ‘teaching research taboo’. Maybe next time you are at a conference, you should ask some of your most respected colleagues if they do any teaching innovation. You might be surprised by what you find out.

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