Commentary: Teachers: Researchers: Altruistic: Self-centered?
- Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education 11/2006; 34(6):447-8. · 0.70 Impact Factor
- Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education 11/2006; 31(6):422 - 423. · 0.70 Impact Factor
Student Centered Education
Commentary: Teachers: Researchers: Altruistic: Self-Centered?
Received for publication, August 26, 2010
Harold B. White‡
From the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, University of Delaware, Newark, Delaware 19716
Not so many years ago the American language was
purged of offensive statements by political correctness.
Words and phrases that would offend certain constituen-
cies, often women, racial and ethnic groups, and others,
became taboo. People learned not to say some of the
things they may have thought in the interest of greater
inclusion and with respect for diverse populations. In my
view, the expectation that society would change for the
better has occurred as a result. Thus, it is with some
hesitation that I challenge an issue of political correct-
ness in academic science.
It is not politically correct to talk about ‘‘research ver-
sus teaching.’’ One is supposed to say ‘‘research and
teaching’’ to indicate the two go hand-in-hand and are
not in opposition to each other. After all, survival in aca-
demia is dependent on getting tenure supposedly by
demonstrating proficiency in both. However, despite the
verbiage found in promotion and tenure documents,
research far outweighs teaching in these decisions in the
sciences at most universities and some colleges [1, 2].
To be truly excellent in both is a goal rarely achieved.
Both need to be recognized so that excellent teaching
does not get short changed. Prince et al.  recently
challenged with considerable documentation the myth
that good researchers make good teachers. That can be
true, and perhaps should be true, but the evidence does
not support it.
I once heard the cynical opinion that scientists are
motivated by three things: fame, fortune, and pursuit of
the unknown, in that order. While certainly pursuit of the
unknown driven by curiosity is the essence of research,
and the goals of research may ultimately be altruistic, the
reality of science is that research costs money. Unless
one is independently wealthy or has a benefactor, being
able to do research requires a significant measure of
self-interest to maintain funding. It is a matter of survival.
If one loses funding, it can mean the end of a research
career. More time devoted to teaching becomes a fall-
back position after funding fails.
Prominent research scientists who are also leading
research showing that lecturing is not the most effective
way to teach, the great majority of science teachers
have not adopted active-learning strategies known to
support better student learning [4, 5, see also refs. 6
and 7]. Why do scientist teachers appear uninterested
in helping students learn better? For me the reason is
clear—at many institutions, the people who teach have
research as their primary interest. While they may like to
teach and even be tempted to change their teaching
methods, the reality for many is that to change consti-
tutes a risk too great to take. Legitimate self-interest
Teaching fundamentally is other oriented. Good teach-
ers, regardless of their methods of instruction, care about
their students and whether they are learning. It is not a
matter of fame and fortune, because those are not the
rewards good teachers seek. Success is measured in the
success of others.
University research faculty sometimes make the case
that researchers have a major teaching role in mentoring
their graduate students and postdocs. That is true, if
mentoring occurs with the interest of the student upper-
most. Otherwise, faculty self-interest may dominate or be
suspect. A test of motivation in such situations is to ask
whether mentoring also occurs for research students
who work in colleagues’ laboratories. For example, do
these faculties see participation in departmental journal
clubs as a burden or a responsibility?
The point I am making is that research in the current
competitive culture is fundamentally a self-centered full-
time enterprise. Survival of the fittest is measured in
grants, publications, and visibility to the individual and
institution. That is understandable and has led to spec-
tacular advances in science. However, what are the con-
sequences for teaching, which is also very important but
is fundamentally an other-oriented enterprise? What,
especially, are the consequences in teaching undergrad-
uate students? Is it reasonable to expect an excellent
researcher to be an excellent teacher any more than vice
Perhaps it is time to reward altruism in the professori-
ate so that assistant professors do not have to conceal
‡To whom correspondence should be addressed. Phone:
302-831-2908. Fax: 302-831-6335. E-mail: email@example.com.
DOI 10.1002/bmb.20455This paper is available on line at http://www.bambed.org
Q 2010 by The International Union of Biochemistry and Molecular BiologyBIOCHEMISTRY AND MOLECULAR BIOLOGY EDUCATION
Vol. 38, No. 6, pp. 408–409, 2010
an interest in education and can be promoted with tenure
for being exceptional educators in places where research
is dominant . Although it is often asserted that good
teaching is harder to recognize and evaluate than good
research, the reason may be that promotion and tenure
committees are populated by successful researchers
who likely have not spent nearly as much time assessing
teaching quality as they have research quality. Student
teaching evaluations are often denigrated, yet such data
may be about all that are used in evaluation when there
are many other possible measures. An unfortunate con-
sequence is that adequate teaching can become the
standard of excellence and expectations are lowered.
Perhaps more effective teaching approaches would be
adopted if improved student learning were the measure
of teaching excellence.
I have advocated a model of teaching and research 
and am reluctant to uncouple teaching and research in
practice, but unless the academic culture can find a way
to better balance the rewards for legitimate self-interest
and necessary altruism, student learning will continue to
suffer as a result. Ideally, research and teaching would
go hand-in-hand because both would be held to a stand-
ard of excellence.
 Boyer Commission (1998) Reinventing Undergraduate Education: A
Blueprint for America’s Universities, Carnegie Foundation, Washington,
DC. Available at: http://notes.cc.sunysb.edu/Pres/Boyer.nsf October
 E. L. Boyer (1990) Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Pro-
fessoriate, Princeton University Press, The Carnegie Foundation for
the Advancement of Teaching, Princeton, New Jersey.
 M. J. Prince, R. M. Felder, R. Brendt (2007) Does faculty research
improve undergraduate teaching? analysis of existing and potential
synergies, J. Eng. Educ. 96, 283–294.
 W. B. Wood, J. M. Gentile (2003) Teaching in a research context,
Science 302, 1510.
 J. Handelsman, D. Ebert-May, R. Beichner, P. Bruns, A. Chang, R.
DeHaan, J. Gentile, S. Lauffer, J. Stewart, S. M. Tilghman, W. B.
Wood (2004) Scientific Teaching, Science 304, 521–522.
 J. Handelsman, S. Miller, C. Pfund (2006) Scientific Teaching, W. H.
Freeman & Co., New York.
 D. Allen, K. Tanner (2007) Transformations: Approaches to College
Science Teaching, W. H. Freeman & Co., New York.
 H. B. White (2006) Commentary: Gender, teaching reform, promo-
tion, and tenure. Biochem. Mol. Biol. Educ. 34, 447–448.
 H. B. White (2003) Commentary: Hiring researchers who teach. Bio-
chem. Mol. Biol. Educ. 31, 422–423.