Widgets Magazine


Sense and Nonsense: The Meaning of Teaching

Whenever I reflect on the greatest teachers in my life, the idea of discussing why we should value teaching seems silly. It feels like devoting energy to discussing why universities should admit women or provide financial aid. To those lucky enough to have had it, the value of great teaching is felt everyday. The question seems profoundly obvious.


But then I remember that, from the lens of a major research university, things can look different. When the growing knowledge produced at Stanford not only ups us in the rankings, but also truly has huge, positive effects on a wider world, it is easy to see how teaching becomes something that we don’t just forget to value, but really don’t think should be valued too much.


I still remember a university administrator informing me three years ago (naïve freshman that I was) that faculty members with tremendous research but weak teaching will probably still get tenure, but a phenomenal teacher with less than stellar research never will. Great teachers at Stanford are great because they want to be, often in spite of an incentive structure that disincentivizes their devotion to teaching.


The University’s justification is one of returns. Fostering a faculty culture of taking teaching seriously certainly won’t help us in the U.S. News rankings, and if it comes at the expense of pioneering research, it may actually bring us down. More significantly, some believe the public service value of research is much more profound than that of the personal dedication of a great mind to students, and in this light, Stanford has a moral obligation to skew the balance far in favor of research.


It is a reality that pioneering research has the potential to provide profound benefits for the world. Part of the excitement surrounding the idea of research is just that: the results are not fully known and possibilities can seem boundless. Through research, we contribute to humanity everyday. But the same is just as true—perhaps even more so—when it comes to teaching bright young students.


Almost anyone who makes a profound difference in the world does so because someone made a profound difference in her life, and so often that person was a teacher. It is difficult for a university to measure these differences, especially because students rarely develop in ways that match our hypotheses, but it should not be too difficult to recognize that in capturing some of the best students in the U.S. and around the world, from a public service standpoint, Stanford has an unbelievable chance to make us leaders of a different sort, to help us shift our trajectory and wrestle with all the wisdom and guidance Stanford’s faculty could offer.


And, importantly, the biggest infusions of motivation and moral awareness often come in personal ways. They involve igniting a student’s curiosity, taking her seriously, illustrating how what she learns relates to the world and her experiences and helping her see a vision of her future self to work toward. They involve passionate commitment to helping students become all we can be. When that commitment is there, the returns—though they may be neglected in the rankings—are huge.


Thinking about the returns of teaching is a very important task, one Stanford should devote more time to. But the truth is, when I think about the value of teaching, my heart isn’t in arguments about returns. They are important, but they fail to capture teaching’s most central value. That value isn’t discovered when we are always caught up in objectives, in thinking about the next step and how we are going to get there. It is discovered when we slow down to reflect. In these moments, we begin to remember why a university holds such enchantment in people’s imaginations, why, for example, the names “Oxford” or “Harvard” inspire awe when uttered on almost any corner of the globe. The university is a site for something special.


The deepest meaning to be found at a university—a place of growing knowledge about the world—is in the sharing that takes place between teacher and student when a teacher helps a student expand her world. It is experienced in the gratitude a student feels when a teacher has helped her become her better self and the gratitude a teacher feels in being part of that development. The potential returns of such relationships are enormous, but to find their deepest value we need look no further than the present. The essentially non-economic element involved in teaching is about meaning, about the flourishing that takes place when a teacher’s intellectual firepower and guidance help foster fruition; that element is part of a university’s soul.


Aysha is feeling grateful for many wonderful teachers. Send her your comments at abagchi@stanford.edu.