Home » FeatureSpring 2011

Balancing Act

by Jennifer Johnston One Comment

Valuing teaching and service at a top research university.

Associate Professor of Anthropology Tiffiny Tung perches on the edge of her office chair, mulling how to explain the importance of successfully melding research, teaching and service into her life’s work at the College of Arts and Science. Each inform and elevate the other, she begins.

She needn’t answer the question, although she has many fine thoughts on the subject. The conversation is punctuated by visits from students turning in research papers or coming to work in the osteology lab. A book Tung is consulting for a research project lies open on her desk. Emails and research permits come in as she plans a summer field project in Peru that will include undergraduate research participants. A grant application for plastic skeletons has just gone into the mail. The skeletons would aid in Tung’s public outreach through Vanderbilt’s Virtual School, where during the week before, she had reached nearly 500 primary school students in two teaching sessions.

Tiffiny Tung (center, with students Matt Migneron, Kirsten Delay, Penny Dolan and Cristina Francois) says her goal—and that of research institutions—is to inspire new generations to become active producers of knowledge.

Tung, like much of the faculty in the College of Arts and Science, is a researcher defined more by her desire to serve the advancement of knowledge than by just the body of her work. Vanderbilt is defined as a research institution but its core mission, like Tung’s, is much more expansive. What does it mean to be a research institution? What does it mean to be a faculty member in the liberal arts college of such an institution? How do teaching and service fit in?

Teaching + Research + Service

At the very basic level, the purpose of the university is to ask questions and solve problems, a description that can be found on the website of the 63-member Association of American Universities, to which Vanderbilt belongs. Research universities train the leaders of the future by combining access to research and education, and they apply expert knowledge to real-world problems every day, according to the AAU.

At the heart of Vanderbilt is the College of Arts and Science. While its mission statement clearly includes the directive to foster well-taught programs and service to society, good teaching and a commitment to service are more than a common goal. They are a distinct part of the Vanderbilt culture, says John Sloop, senior associate dean of the College of Arts and Science and professor of communication studies.

“People sometimes think that at a research university, the commitment and dedication to teaching is a façade. But that’s not true here and I can’t stress that enough,” he says. “The teaching culture here is rich, robust and vibrant in a way that you might not expect.”

Sloop and all administrators serving in the Arts and Science dean’s office—including Dean Carolyn Dever—teach every year. For that matter, so does Chancellor Nicholas Zeppos. “We make better decisions because we’re in the classroom and it better informs our research,” Sloop says.

Tripartite Mission

At an institution such as Vanderbilt, the expectation is clear that faculty must be leaders and experts in their fields. But top researchers don’t leave their classroom duties to a colleague down the hall. “What I would continue to stress is that every one of them is a really good teacher, too, and I find this unusual when compared with other university environments,” Sloop says.

Marilyn Murphy presenting at Inside Out of the Lunchbox, a series of talks sponsored by Vanderbilt for the Nashville community.

Associate Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences Steve Goodbred was part of a team that interviewed potential new faculty as his department expanded. Candidates who demonstrate a record of integrating their research into the excellent teaching of undergraduates and service to the community have a leg up on others, he says. Stellar research alone won’t make the cut.

“When we hire new faculty, we talk a lot about the university culture … There is not a bar to get over or a secret handshake,” says Goodbred, whose research interests focus on river deltas and coastal environments. Instead, at Vanderbilt, faculty search committees routinely search for potential colleagues who are fully engaged in the complete, collaborative academic experience because that engagement meshes more fully with the institution’s environment, he says. He came to the College of Arts and Science from a state university where he felt good teaching wasn’t valued.

These students are very used to exceeding expectations, but I’m asking them to throw expectations out the window.

—Marilyn Murphy

> Watch Murphy’s Lunchbox talk.

“One reason the tripartite mission works at Vanderbilt is because it’s articulated to people when they come in,” Goodbred says. “Research, teaching and service together are truly valued. It goes beyond rhetoric. People are willing to put in the effort it takes when they know it is not just disappearing as a checked box on their resume.”

All of the professors interviewed for this article teach introductory courses and invite undergraduate participation in their research. In fact, they love teaching introductory classes and watching how students often change their worldviews as the semester progresses. These professors routinely share research findings and articles in class—their own and those of others who challenge or complement their ideas.

Inextricably Altered

Professor of Art Marilyn Murphy has been a member of the faculty for more than 30 years and still relishes teaching introductory art courses, “wrestling” the students into better drawing and less conventional thinking.

“These students are very used to exceeding expectations, but I’m asking them to throw expectations out the window,” Murphy says. Ultimately the goal is to, literally, “heighten their awareness of the world around them.”

Murphy described the reaction of one student, who said that after a class unit on creating the illusion of depth with shadows, “I could hardly walk over here.” The student’s way of looking at the interplay of light and dark in the world had been inextricably altered. She wondered if her path to class would ever be the same again.

Murphy’s “The Getaway” depicts her feelings toward the challenging, yet satisfying tasks of academic administration.

Murphy says her teaching and service to the university have dramatically influenced her work as an artist. She has poured many hours into administrative duties, such as revamping catalog information for studio art, which had course entries jumbled like spaghetti with art history. She was heavily involved in all phases of construction of what is now the E. Bronson Ingram Studio Arts Center. For many years, she was a department chair.

Her dramatic artwork often presents a surprising twist on everyday life. “I started a whole series of falling paper,” she remembers. Murphy realized the tumbling sheets represented the overwhelming but ultimately satisfying completion of administrative tasks that furthered and improved the mission of the university. In her piece, “The Getaway,” a woman in high heels looking over a fence is caught up in barbed wire. “After I relinquished the world of chair, I began to do (art that included) a lot of balloons,” she says with a smile.

For artists such as Murphy, publication and productivity are associated with staging exhibits and shows, which she has done all over the world. In 2004, the Frist Center for the Visual Arts presented a retrospective of the last 25 years of her work, Suspended Animation.

For basic scientists such as Patrick Abbot, associate professor of biological sciences, research life revolves around writing grants, conducting and guiding research, and encouraging ideas and inquiry that lead to more research. In all arenas, the mandate is to communicate information clearly.

“It’s very common for me to be working on a paper, and to get up and grab my lectures. My brain is very much into how to best describe a point,” he says. He strides into the classroom ready to share and expand on ideas.

Abbot’s research focuses on insects, typically those that feed on plants and mammals. The ultimate goal is a more comprehensive understanding of the interaction between species. “It’s very hard to find an insect that doesn’t have an important function. Sometimes it’s just not visible,” he says.

“We Do it … Because We Love It”

Good teaching and basic science breakthroughs would not be possible without institutions such as Vanderbilt, Abbot says. Professors, in turn, understand the critical need to “participate in the maintenance and improvement of these institutions.” That’s where service, such as editing journals, jurying research or serving on faculty committees, naturally comes in.

Patrick Abbot combines teaching with research in his biological sciences lab.

“The most obvious reason we do it is because we love it,” Abbot says. There’s also a strong commitment to paying it forward and paying homage to previous mentors. “I don’t know a single colleague who can’t point to somebody in their life who was a member of an institution like Vanderbilt who was critical in facilitating their development and getting them to where they are. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t keep that in the back of their mind when they engage with students.”

He relishes the opportunity to follow the careers of students who have matriculated through his lab and gone on to graduate school and careers in the sciences. Many publish papers before they graduate from Vanderbilt, he says.

“They really have a home and the opportunity to be part of something,” he says. Students have full access to laboratories like Abbot’s and the opportunity for an intensely hands-on experience. “By the time they’re done with their research projects, walking into a crowd and doing a PowerPoint presentation is nothing. When they go on interviews and they’re asked about what they did, they can be very specific.”
His pride is almost parental. “It becomes effortless. I’ve seen them give better talks than I can give. The educational value is just immense.”

Inspiring New Generations

That is part of the ultimate goal of a research institution–to inspire new generations to become active producers of knowledge, according to Tung, who has made a strong commitment to public science education and encourages her students to continue that tradition as well.

“This is a place where new ideas are being implemented and they have the opportunity to tap into that,” Tung says.

Sparking students’ interest helps keep Steven Goodbred recharged and ready for each semester to begin.

A bio-archaeologist, Tung takes undergraduates and graduate students to central Peru to study the Wari culture, a pre-Incan civilization that lived in the Andes 1,400 years ago. Undergrads who have completed Tung’s osteology course have the opportunity to participate in research and become involved in teaching a similar course on skeletal analysis to high school students in the U.S. and Peru. In the laboratory portion of the class, the undergraduates work hands-on to manage different stations. “When I see my undergrads teach the high school students, I know that they really comprehend the material,” Tung says. “I sit and watch it unfold.”

While Tung emphasizes that research and teaching can be creatively blended into service, she acknowledges there are many unglamorous challenges to daily work and to keeping a balance. Goodbred agrees.

“I’m not a great multitasker, so at the end of the semester, I’m ready for the semester to end,” Goodbred admits. But then, he says, there’s a kind of rebirth and a longing to begin again. Often that’s fueled by knowing he’s created a spark in a student, like the one who sent him a lengthy email thanking him for the way he so effectively taught a course. The email is taped to his wall. “That made my year,” he says.

photo credit: Joe Howell, Jenny Mandeville, John Russell

One Comment »

  • D. Sarah Stamps said:

    I’m thrilled to see that a top research university values quality teaching and service. An emphasis on student learning is key to developing young minds that can have a positive impact in our global society. Kudos to Vanderbilt University for encouraging faculty to broaden their reach beyond the confines of their research.