Creating Knowledge? Not Synthesizing? A Thought on Teaching and Researching

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Recently on Facebook, I posted a status update about a research article I wrote. This past semester I’ve been teaching a course on early Christian martyrdom, working through much of the Musurillo collection (Acts of the Christian Martyrs [Oxford: Clarendon, 1972]) with a group of undergraduates. It’s been a few years since I read these texts, so it’s been a blast to jump back into these ancient Greek and Latin martyr acts. While preparing for a class session a few weeks ago, an idea struck me when reading the Latin text of a particular martyr act. I discussed the idea with a colleague in Classics, going over some of the Latin syntax. In class, I threw my reading out there and kicked it around a bit with my students. On the way home–a two hour bus ride–I poured over the text with a meticulous eye, making copious notes and developing my idea even further. The obsession to research had hit me. Over the next two weeks, mostly on the weekends when I wasn’t teaching, I found myself reading and writing, while barely sleeping or eating. Occasionally I get obsessed like this, but the “research bug” had not hit me like this for a long time. Two weeks to the day, I had a roughly 40-page finished article hammered out and submitted to a journal. I am now waiting on the referee decision.

On Facebook I quipped that I was enthralled in “creating knowledge”. Indeed, in almost every class session I’ve develop a new idea for a research project! A friend, someone who has worked in research universities but is not an academic by profession, asked: “Creating knowledge? Not synthesizing?”

Her question threw me. Do real scholars just synthesize knowledge? Isn’t academia all about knowledge creation and knowledge critique?  Or isn’t creating and synthesizing two sides of the same coin? I started to reflect on the distinction between these two activities. What dawned on me is that academics do both, though they are distinct activities. Sometimes they go hand-in-hand, but often they are different–and that difference might be tied to the goals and context in which the scholar functions. The distinction seems to be that of being a teacher and of being a researcher.

I thought about a friend of mine who is a master teacher. I’ve seen him teach. He’s amazing. And he has complete command of the material, the classroom, the students, everything. Students hang on his every sentence and he has a gift to energize students. I like to think that I’m a good teacher, even if I work with a very different style, but my hat goes off to him as an even better teacher. A master teacher.

A master teacher is someone who is a grand synthesizer. It is a scholar who has mastered her or his material, keeps up on that material, and has a gift for communicating it to others. Such a teacher can open up new worlds for students. They are capable of writing in an accessible, engaging way. They are natural teachers who have a passion for figuring out new ways to connect knowledge with people, while guiding those people to a more critical approach to such knowledge. These are very much the kind of academics we want in our classrooms.

But there is also the master researcher. The person who just can’t settle for sharing other people’s ideas, but needs to be part of the creative process. The person who needs–is driven no less–to scratch below the surface, to challenge the foundations of knowledge, and to reconstruct something new, better, or different. They create knowledge. Often I’ve seen such researchers stumble when it comes to presenting and facilitating other people’s work, be that in a classroom or editing other scholars’ work. They just can’t resist the itch to jump in and join the debate. Many of the master researchers I’ve met over the past nearly thirty years are some of the brightest, most energetic, and passionate scholars I’ve encountered. These are the people that fill the pages of journals with cutting edge research, who have monographs hitting our library shelves on a regular basis, who break new ground and let us believe in the necessary fiction of academic “progress”. They don’t walk across bridges, they build bridges for the rest of use to walk across. They see things others don’t and, in such perceptive moments, make connections that others miss. We need these master researchers. They are the life-blood of scholarship.

So is it possible that the master teacher is the one who effectively synthesizes (be that in a classroom, public lecture, or in writing a textbook or other teaching tool), while the master researcher is the one who creates knowledge? That’s where my thoughts took me this past week. But the implications of such a typology also struck me. Which should we value? Where should university budget money be directed, not only for publicly funded institutions but also for (public or private) institutions primarily dedicated to teaching? To be honest, I’ve long felt that a scholar needed to be a producer of knowledge. She or he needed to be actively engaged in scholarly production or they cease being a “real” scholar in my eyes and, instead, become a glorified high school teacher in a university with a Ph.D.  But when money comes in to support teaching, with research a secondary task for so many in higher education, is it perhaps the researcher who doesn’t belong in the college or university?

I don’t like where my thoughts are going. I don’t want our institutions of higher learning to be reduced to being purely teaching outlets, especially when public policies seems to reinforce the view of education as nothing more than “job training” (surely we do far more than just produce work monkeys for the economy).  But I also recognize that there are very few venues for scholars who are dedicated to pure research, scholars (in the humanities in particular) who flourish best (and make their greatest contribution) by creating rather than synthesizing knowledge. At the same time, my reflections this week have led me to reassess my negative outlook on those who mostly or exclusively teach. They are scholars, just with a different set of strengths and making a different kind of contribution.

Finally, I have to ask: is there an antithesis between the master teacher and the master researcher? I don’t think so. Rather than a binary, I think we have a scale between two poles. There are those who only do teaching, despite their occasionally required publication, and there are those who only do research, despite their required teaching work. But most of us fall somewhere in between. We are researching teachers or teaching researchers. We create and synthesize at the same time, in a mutually beneficial or symbiotic process. I think it important to recognize that a really good teacher is someone with not only the ability to present information, but someone with a passion and an energy driving them in such presentations. It’s an energy that catches on and inspires learning. Often that energy is triggered by research. The mind of the scholar is sparked and set aflame by the ideas being formed in her or his mind–and that process will overflow into the classroom, hopefully in a contagious excitement passed on to the students. Further, such a teacher will exemplify what being a researcher is for his or her students. And the researcher often will trigger and refine the very knowledge being created by engaging a group of people, including, of course, a class of students. Rarely if ever do ideas emerge in a social vacuum. There is often a symbiosis between synthesizing and creating knowledge–a symbiosis that benefits both tasks.

Yet the energy that sparks great teaching need not be a research project. Sometimes it’s the passion for the material, keeping up on current scholarship, and facilitating critical discussions over such scholarship within the classroom. The dichotomy of synthesizing and creating knowledge, therefore, may be a false one. Even the exclusive contexts of each task be false: do we just synthesize in the classroom? do we just create knowledge in academic publications and conferences? Or, for instance, can we create knowledge in the classroom? When I teach I often do both. I present ideas, research, trends, etc. to my students. I want them to master–and to master critiquing–the positions (= epistemological products) of those they are studying. Yet, I also want to create new ideas, break new ground, shatter paradigmatic ceilings, and leave with new insights far beyond anything we read in prep for class. And I want my students to do the same. I do research in the classroom. It’s how I teach.

All of this is part of academia. And my reflections this past week have helped me to gain a new perspective on my colleagues, on my own approach in the classroom, and on the diverse ebb and flow we call the academy.



2 thoughts on “Creating Knowledge? Not Synthesizing? A Thought on Teaching and Researching

    1. Thanks, Richard! I wasn’t familiar with the Boyer model, but yes it does move in the right direction I think. Personally, I’d like to see scholarship and education not only conceptualized, but institutionalized with a broader scope than is usual. And I think it would help institutions to “stop playing games” with how they often present themselves. I’ve seen small teaching universities that stress research production on paper, but in practice are really about teaching and community. And I’ve seen stereotypes of research universities as only focused on research at the expense of dedicated teaching (something that is not reflective of what actually goes on at a research university, at least in my experience). But some of this “broadening out” work may necessitate a shift in public values on what “higher education” is all about.

      Liked by 1 person

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