Provost Paul Sypherd makes an eloquent case for the research university (guest column, March 25). In the ideal university, students are surrounded by the "climate of discovery," they "engage in the spirit of discovery" with teachers who are themselves active scholars. Students have the opportunity to "touch the truth, through experiences, in laboratories and libraries."
At the University of Arizona, however, students are lucky if they get an active scholar in the form of a faculty member in their first two years. And even if an undergraduate course is taught by an active professor, all too often it consists of a journey through an old and well-worn syllabus, with the professor never mentioning what is going on at the forefront of the subject. The wonderful research that goes on all over this university ends up being irrelevant to most undergraduates.
A major problem is that it is a big challenge to bring research into undergraduate teaching in ways that preserve its content and excitement. To begin with, one must be active in research and aware of what is current in fields outside one's own specialty. Also, one must be a dedicated teacher, willing to put in the effort required to turn advanced theories into concepts accessible to undergraduates from a wide variety of backgrounds. Being both consumes huge quantities of energy and time. Given the current reward structures, it is not surprising that many professors decide that this route is not for them.
In order to bring the provost's ideal to reality, the whole culture of undergraduate teaching must be changed. We (the faculty) must start to look on the undergraduates as partners, not distractions, in the quest for knowledge. Sure, they're beginners, and they have to learn to walk before they can run. And it will be a lot of hard work for us, especially in the early stages. And if we are to succeed, the way the university sets its priorities must be changed radically. But if researdch is to survive at the university, it must be made accessible and relevant to those who are, after all, our main customers.
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