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The Role of Research and the Integration of Research and Teaching

It is clear that the Physics Department has had a strong interest over time in improving the teaching of physics, and has contributed nationally to this effort. Integrating research and teaching seems to have been a more fractious issue for the department, one answered differently by its various members at various times. Underlying the different approaches lurk different definitions of what research is and what expectations it must meet. The spectrum of opinion is wide, perhaps owing something to the nature of the discipline itself. Containing within itself theoretical and experimental strands, physics lends itself to an extraordinary level of abstract thought, as well as work that is concrete and instrument-bound. Thus the field, and the department, contain theoretical physicists who experiment by thinking, writing, or working on a computer, and experimentalists who rely on outside funding to support their needs for expensive and extensive instrumentation. In the Reed physics department, these objective differences have been amplified at times by personal style.

At one end of the spectrum thus created stands theoretical physicist Nicholas Wheeler, capable of making the most abstract ideas so beautiful that students don’t care if they don’t completely understand. "His research is to take a piece of a larger picture that has been left murky, a piece no one has ever understood well, and untangle it to make it elegantly intelligible," says David Griffiths. "I know of 30 or 40 instances of such monographs that he has written. I footnoted one in my text on particle physics, and I’ve had at least 50 requests for that monograph. I mail it out all the time."

For Wheeler, the priority is not publishing–he does not submit his monographs to publications–but teaching, and the research it spawns. "For many faculty research (in physics) at Reed tends… to spring from their teaching activity," Wheeler says, "thus blurring the distinction between "teaching" and "research" and making the teaching more exciting, and making it possible for the students to become co-participants in the research."

Other faculty have displayed a different emphasis, one more similar to that found in Reed’s chemistry or biology departments, or, for that matter, in large universities, where grants are common and publication of results the expectation. At this end of the spectrum stand some, such as Fred Brown, Asim Barut, and Stavros Theodroakis who have gone on to such other facilities.

Jean Delord is another faculty member publicly known for his research, but much of his primary work took place off-campus and led him to divide his time and attention between Reed and Tektronix. While students undoubtedly benefited from his connections there, at the same time, Delord was less available to students and his department for many years than if he had been full- time at Reed. More recently, Johnny Powell has concluded that the emphasis he had placed on funded and publishable work did not fit easily within the department.

"There’s a wide chasm between the priority that research is given verbally, and what is actually done operationally in the department," says Richard Crandall. "I believe, with most, that teaching should be the first priority, with research coming a close but vital second. But I mean meaningful, peer-reviewed research. You have to stand up to be counted. You have to put your work up for scrutiny. The irony of the chasm is that students deserve such honesty."

"There’s an ongoing tension over this issue in the department and in the college," says Mary James. "My feeling is that it’s a mistake for us to try to be a little Stanford, to try to do vital research with undergraduates. Physics is a fairly hierarchical subject, which makes that very difficult–much more so, for example, than with a subject like psychology." For a student to get far enough in course work in three years to do serious independent research in the fourth is nearly impossible, she believes.

"Johnny Powell and I are the only faculty to have applied for and gotten research grants since I’ve been here," says John Essick. "This may make it appear that this is not a state of the art department, but remember, theoretical physicists don’t need that kind of money to do their research, and for the rest of us, because of the thesis, we keep up to date, and the department is state-of-the-art. I don’t feel pressure to get grants," Essick adds, "but I always go for them to keep myself current."

David Griffiths has solved the problem for himself by cultivating an interest in some relatively unexplored issues in classical electrodynamics. "Some would say it was all wrapped up 100 years ago," says Griffiths, "but there are some small aspects that are not clear, and it’s a wonderful subject for me–very do-able here, and I’m not worried about others racing to publish on it first." In 21 years at Reed, 13 of Griffiths' research publications have included students as coauthors. "Year before last year I supervised three theses," he adds, "and all resulted in publication of some form." The American Journal of Physics is the most common vehicle. But as for the college demanding that professors publish, "the pressure in Physics," Griffiths says, "is precisely zero." He adds, "Nick Wheeler is one of the most brilliant physicists I’ve ever known, and he almost never publishes, which is kind of a shame. Many could benefit from his work."

"What my colleagues notice about my work is the quality of the senior theses that I supervise and if my classes are current and challenging," summarizes John Essick. Says David Griffiths, "Because of its location, Reed is very isolated intellectually. As an elementary particle physicist, I’ve found that there’s no one in my field within a one to two hour radius. I think the best thing I can do in the summer is get … out of town–and often we go to Berkeley. It might be good for the students, however, if more opportunities existed to work here with faculty then."

Below follow some comments by graduates on their perception of the tradeoff between teaching and research:

  • "Reed gave me a spectacularly good grounding in basic physics, including things like the path integral approach to quantum mechanics, which were not yet fashionable in the outside world but were soon to become so…On the other hand, because Reed was not a research institution and had no one doing research in my chosen subfield, I was at a disadvantage relative to students who came from schools with research faculty in that field. This affected my first year in grad school at MIT as far as the time it took to learn the material and the faculty’s perception of me. It is at least one of the reasons that I did not end up working with Steven Weinberg, the best person in my field at MIT. On the other hand, that the Profs did not do much significant research was good in that they devoted more of their time to teaching and interacting with students." Tom Banks, ’69 (Banks is a world-reknowned professor of physics at Rutgers University.)

  • "After I did my post-doctoral work, I applied to teach at a university. Now I’m glad I didn’t get the job. I’m interested in students–their growth and learning. You don’t have that luxury at the university level; it conflicts with the pressure to get grants and scientific results. I didn’t feel that conflict at Reed." Russell Kauffman ’84 (Associate Professor of Physics at Muhlenberg College).

  • "I did perceive conflicts between the ability of faculty to advance in research and have adequate time for students… But my personal experience was that I had an involved thesis adviser (Johnny Powell) who counseled me about my career and fostered my interest in Biophysics. This seems even more notable to me when I realize that these were his first years at Reed as a non-tenured faculty member. So, although it’s hard, I think that good faculty members can and do strike the balance." Melanie Bennett ’89 (Bennett is a postdoctoral fellow at Caltech, having received her PhD from UCLA.)

  • "Reed science faculty members do nothave research programs anywhere comparable to those expected of faculty at research—oriented institutions with graduate programs. Most research seems to be well-intentioned, but aimed more for the low-level pedagogical benefit of the students rather than serious advancement of a field of knowledge, but I would argue that the best way to inspire and educate students is for the profs to have serious and active research programs--publishing regularly if not frequently in serious, peer-reviewed research journals as opposed to pedagogical publications." James Farrell ’97 (winner of a 1997 NSF fellowship, now in a graduate program in biophysics at UCSF).

  • "I believe the research Reed conducts is rather meager and inconsequential (there are exceptions of course). I don’t think Reed has the resources, personnel or money to do otherwise." Benjamin Palmer ’95 (graduate student at the University of Maryland)

  • "Some of the problems with the physics curriculum (see curriculum section) may have been partially because the department is out of touch with the requirements of a modern graduate physics department, and to some extent with the field of active physics research." Rachel Somerville ’89. (Somerville is currently a post-doctoral researcher in astrophysics at the University of Cambridge; she will be returning to a tenure track position at the University of Michigan in 2001.)

  • "While several of the newer people did interesting research, there was a strong sense that it was somehow clandestine–that they were doing it despite the department, rather than as part of it…. I believe that it’s possible to be ‘too’ focused on teaching, and the department–which seemed to be actively discouraging faculty from doing research at that time–could certainly have loosened up a bit in that respect without losing their students." Craig DeForest ’89.

  • "Research by the faculty was limited by their dedication to teaching, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. In choosing to work at Reed, they are saying that they want to concentrate on being a good teacher." Benjamin Brau ’93 (graduate student in particle physics at MIT).

The Reed Physics Department
The Era of Experimentalists: 1911-1963
The Era of Theoretical Physics: 1963-1897
Achieving Balance: 1987-Present
Academic Structure and Issues
Junior Qual
Senior Thesis
The Role of Research and the Integration of Research and Teaching
The Curriculum
Relations with Students
Teaching Style
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