Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Writing and Teaching

As I reach the end of my teaching for the semester, I notice that I've neglected blogging since September. This is an unfortunate symptom of a common malady in academia today, viz., the disconnect between teaching and research. Many of us feel that our teaching duties conflict with our research tasks.

I want to take a few moments to say something about that. While there are general institutional reasons for the trend, I think everyone owes it to themselves (and their students) to maximize the connections between what happens in the classroom and what happens in the field (or laboratory or observatory or archive). There are principled grounds for this, of course: we should be teaching things we know something about, i.e., something we have a serious intellectual interest in. That is, our teaching should be based on our research. But there are also practical reasons to connect the two. Indeed, I want to suggest that it is always wiser to keep teaching and research connected than to remain commmitted to the trajectory of either one. That is, you will regret pursuing a research topic that is relevant to your teaching less than you will regret dropping a research topic that is not relevant to your teaching. Likewise, you will regret following your own interests in interpreting the themes of a course less than you will regret conforming to a syllabus that lies too far outside your field of experience.

Experience is the key word. Linguistic expression always deteriorates in the absence of experience. You must use your language skills if you want to keep them healthy (grammar is usage, after all). Both your teaching and your prose will benefit from continuous exercise on the same set of themes. You will find that presenting your knowledge in a variety of fora (and languages) activates your sense of detail, and those details are absolutely essential to your style. Your style improves every time you successfully write down a clear, shiny detail. It rarely benefits from the assertion of a vague generality ... even when successful.