Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Notes from the Teaching/Research Boundary: Tectonic Shifts

The first year of teaching a new course, the quarter passes in a haze of repeated tries and seemingly random successes and fails. This time around, the second year I’m teaching our department's undergraduate Plate Tectonics course, it is so much smoother and so much richer. 

In preparing for a recent lecture,  I was paging through my favorite-ever textbook, Cox & Hart, and found in the margins a scribbled note to myself from last year.

 “Am I the kind of scientist who readily accepts the next plate-tectonic-like revolution? Or am I so conservative that it is difficult to hear new ideas and bring them onboard? I hope for the former but fear the latter is more true of me.”

 I was born in the spring of the plate tectonics revolution, and teaching this class has made me took a good look at my own development as a scientist.  So in the past year, I have taken a triple approach to being a less conservative scientist and hopefully, ultimately, a better one.

First, I’m taking greater risks in my own research program. I’m working to answer bigger and more important questions and in more fundamental ways, by questioning some of the as-delivered explanations, and teaching myself concepts from scratch.
Second, I have suspended judgment on favoring depth vs breadth. It takes time to build each; more time to build both. Do I spend my energy getting ever-higher resolution information? I think this is my natural inclination; it’s how most scientists are trained. Or should I be combining very different types of information to help solve a particular answer? Yes this is important sometimes too, and perhaps extremely important in my field of Earth sciences, where many different types of observations of the natural world—its chemical and physical properties and their changes in space and time—combine with our understanding of physics, chemistry, and process engineering to tell us how Earth and planets have evolved. So I embrace this balance—more like an active tension—between single-discipline and cross-disciplinary research.
Talking with people from other fields is less than half the challenge of cross-disciplinary study. The important part is the listening. My final challenge is to become a better listener. It’s ok to take others’ observations at face value, and perhaps experience new ways to think about the world. Yes I’m still a skeptic and a strong one. The challenge is to ….wait…. before letting in the skepticism. The goal is to spend time steeping in different ideas, and not be so quick to push away the discomfort of the new and different.


  1. Oh my goodness, I have so much fear of being a closed-minded scientist! Certainly working on interdisciplinary problems has helped me to overcome some knee jerk reactions against new ideas (I like to think that I don't immediately panic and reject exciting new science), but still the Fear lingers...
    I am going to make sure to remember your triple approach!

  2. Teaching about the history of plate tectonics was a big eye-opener for me, especially given my engineering/physics/geophysics training. It's good self-training to keep the brain flexible and able to learn new things, and--especially--reject the wrong things that we have always (it seems) believed.

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