Research and the Academic Direction: A Response

by Megan Steven | 5/21/01 5:00am

Dartmouth is at a crossroads, but it is not a decision of left or right. The decision is one of backwards or forwards. Undeniably, the teaching culture at Dartmouth is critical to the undergraduate experience. However, the road forward must be facilitated by excellence in research coupled with outstanding teaching. By not addressing the importance of the research culture to Dartmouth undergraduates, the recently released Student Assembly report entitled "The Soul of Dartmouth: The Academic Direction of Dartmouth College" does not represent the student body as a whole.

Although the SA report mentions that teaching and research are not "by definition mutually exclusive," they do not acknowledge that research is an irreplaceable teaching mechanism. Good research enables learning in a way that the classroom cannot. The skills that can be learned in a research environment with the hands on experience and one-on-one interactions with faculty and graduate students are not skills that can be taught in the classroom. Dartmouth must be able to offer that opportunity to its students. Having highly skilled research professors is necessary for that reason.

Excellence in faculty is a concept that we believe the SA report does support within its pages. However, we would like to point out that excellence in faculty is not limited to excellence in teaching. Research is a necessary component to teaching, even within the classroom walls. Professors need to be up-to-date with the current happenings in their field so that they may inspire students with current issues and dilemmas of the subject matter. If professors are not actively involved in research in their field, then their lectures will remain stagnant and unchanging. We should not encourage this type of teaching by demanding the hiring of non-research professors. We should encourage the hiring of skilled research professors who also want actively to involve the undergraduates in their scholarship.

The condemnation of the Psychological and Brain Sciences (PBS) department is perhaps the most egregious aspect of the report. The statement that the area of neuroscience is "almost never relevant to the undergraduates" is both ignorant and unsubstantiated. Neuroscience is relevant to undergraduates. The research opportunities that the department offers are numerous and beneficial to many undergraduates. For example, Psychological and Brain Sciences was the first teaching institution in the world to install a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) facility, thus providing an unbelievable opportunity to undergraduates. With new course offerings focused on fMRI (e.g. PBS 60), undergraduates are becoming versed in cutting-edge research technology. As one professor exclaimed, "undergraduates having this kind of access is unheard of in the fMRI field!"

Multiple other PBS professors who we interviewed were offended by the report's claims, and stated that they personally include in their labs at least five to six undergraduates per year, with one stating he had upwards of 15. A Cognitive Neuroscience professor, in particular, noted that "research in cognitive neuroscience at Dartmouth would halt to a full stop without the involvement of undergraduates." Furthermore, in our interviews we discovered that several of the faculty's grants were written specifically to include undergraduates! We are working with the chair of the undergraduate committee in the department to collect the exact number of students working in the Moore labs.

On a more personal note, the two of us have been deeply involved in neuroscience research at Moore and were quite upset with statements such as "a greater emphasis on research does not really positively affect undergraduate students " The research that we have conducted there and the relationships that we have developed with the faculty have helped us to define our future careers and aspirations. Moreover, upon proceeding through the medical and graduate school admission processes, we have found research experience to be a necessary quality of a competitive candidate. Without opportunities like those offered by the outstanding research faculty at PBS, our Dartmouth experience would be void of scientific-writing, grant acquisitions, and acceptance to professional schools.

We commend the efforts of the Student Assembly to invite discourse on this important matter. But, we feel their "direction" is misguided and not representative of the whole student body. Therefore, our intention is to submit a document revealing the opinions of those unrepresented students who believe in the importance of research as a teaching mechanism that is essential to the learning process. In this mission, we would request any interested undergraduates, graduates, or faculty to email us in support of this cause.