What to learn from Alan Alda

Imagine that you are a good researcher who just got his PhD and made some highly cited publications. You tell yourself “Okay, I am very ready to get a tenure track position in a reputable university”. You apply for such a position and eventually you get the position. Preparing for the semester, you make brochures for the course you will teach, the class is full and many students still want to register the course, every thing seems to be perfect till now. However, after two lectures, the number of students who attend decreases and by the course drop deadline, you find only one fourth of students who registered the course will continue it.

A nightmare scenario for a new professor. What’s happened I believe I can understand multiples of the information I give in class. I avoided tough topics, why students left my class?! A lot of questions hit your mind, but let conclude all these in just one question:

Is a good researcher a good teacher ?

The answer is not always true. One of the pioneer in noticing this was Alan Alda an actor, director and writer, and a six-time Emmy Award and Golden Globe Award winner.  He has had a lifelong interest in science. In 1990, he began his TV program “Scientific American Frontiers“.  The program continued until 2005 and mainly focused on informing the public about new technologies and discoveries in science and medicine. After interviewing hundreds of scientists, Mr. Alda became convinced that many researchers have wonderful stories to tell, but some need help in telling them.

This gave the idea to Mr. Alda to establish Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science. The center aims to enhance understanding of science by helping train the next generation of scientists and health professionals to communicate more effectively with the public, the media, and others outside their own discipline. The message of Mr. Alda can be concluded in making a good communication with your audience, rehearse on the best way to deliver the same piece of information to different audience. For example, old people, young children, people very far from your field. By doing this, you ensure that you get the simplest way of illustrating something. There is a well known quote that says “If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself.” 

Other advice from Mr. Alda is to be always able to improvise. This comes by a lot of training and practicing. It is not good to memorize every word you will say in your lecture in advance, but you need to arrange your thoughts in a way that makes you cover everything in a timely and effective manner while ensuring that your audience are understanding what you say.

I think this specific way of science communication should be used by professors/ teachers in their classrooms. It is not hard but only requires training and preparation.

14 thoughts on “What to learn from Alan Alda

  1. Thanks for sharing.

    I always try to explain the materials I will be covering in class to my son. It’s a very effective way to test myself and see if I’m ready. I think improvisation is important but need to be controlled. I mean, you should be able to be creative and try to not have a memorized screen, but it’s also not good to go to far from the topics we are discussing the the class. I have faced several professors that improvise too much, to the point that they don’t have credibility anymore with the students.

    Having a balance is always good 🙂

    1. Of course, balancing is very important. You should at end keep in the topic boundaries. What I meant here is that professors try to rehearse and practice a lot so that they are able to answer even surprising questions. If they really understand what they teach, they will be able to find “correct “answers to whatever they were asked. Of course, some other questions still need more search, but professors will be able to answer the majority of questions through improvisation.

  2. Thanks for reminding me about Alan Alda! I think his lessons are very important for professors not only when they are lecturing to students, but also for when they are sharing their research with their community and the public at large.

    This also brought a question to my mind. In my PFP class, we talked about a potential division of labor, so to speak, in the university setting; that is having solely teaching faculty for those that were more naturally talented at teaching and solely research faculty for those that were more naturally talented at research. Do you think that this is a good idea and/or should the talented researcher learn to communicate their science better and teach?

    1. You raised many good points in this comment. I think in the academic career, professors are much evaluated by their research activity rather than teaching. I think this not going to change as, you know, research is what brings funds to faculties / students. I feel that some people may be talented in teaching, however others can still be good teachers by learning and practicing.

  3. Hi — I like the question that you pose: Is a good researcher a good teacher? I think we often assume that someone who has expertise in an area can teach it, but teaching is a special skill. I think we’re all teachers and students, but conscious teaching is both an art and a science. While there are many skills that are required in both positions, they are different enough that being good in one does not necessarily mean you will be good in the other.

    1. Yes, that’s true. We always assume that an expertise person in some area is the best one to teach it. This could be true only if this person has the teaching skill OR he dedicated enough time to learn good ways to communicate with the audience. I think rehearsing in front of different people is very valuable in that someone finds his weak points and be able to better deliver the information.

  4. What a fantastic post! I have always appreciated Alan Alda and you have given me another reason to remain a fan. Your thoughts provoked me to think about how I deliver my presentations and class lectures. I have a tendency to get in my head and find it difficult to tailor down the information to fit my audience. Mostly because I have learned so much about the subject, am excited about it, and everything feels important for the audience to know. I am learning still. So your comment on really keeping your audience in mind is helpful. Thanks!

    1. One of the big problems I had in classes is that some instructors usually give less time to the basics. In their opinion, it is easy and so they just mention it without checking that students already got what they said. I think that as you said, instructors should make sure that their students can following them.

  5. I actually did my term paper in PFP last semester on the research-teaching link (or lack thereof). There are a lot of people who believe that it’s just obvious. “Of course you good researchers are good teachers. They’re active in their field! They’re on the cutting edge!” The problem is, like you said, that terrible communicators make terrible teachers no matter how exciting their research is. Communication can be taught, but a lot of people never learn.

    This is still a big debate in the academic world, especially with more and more teaching being done by adjuncts and other non-research faculty. There have been very few quantitative studies that show any real link between research and teaching excellence. Many people still believe that it’s there, just not able to be quantified. Personally, I think that good researchers can be good teachers, but that the two aren’t really related. The qualities of a good researcher are very different from the qualities of a good teacher. Some people have both, but many don’t. Of course, I’m biased, since I want to be a teaching professor.

    1. Exactly, the qualities of good teachers are very different from the qualities of good researchers. I think some researchers need only training and learning some efficient teaching methodologies to be good teachers. It is hard to separate the two jobs as universities need both and researchers are more credited for their research. Instructors, who are not professors, miss the opportunity to improve themselves as they are not in contact with the recent research in their fields.

  6. I think this is a tough topic that higher ed. is grappling with now, but it has been around since the 1950’s at least. Are universities primarily to create brilliant and world changing research or are they there to educate students, who will hopefully come up with brilliant research in the future. Like Mr. Alda and you point out it does not have to be contradictory goals. There can be a balance between the two. I think that part of the answer lies in the plan to have some faculty specifically work on research and some whose primary goal is education. I also think that researchers need the training so that they can better communicate with students and the general public. This is a challenge that we live with in academia for at least the foreseeable future and there is probably no single answer or strategy for dealing with it. Each college will have to determine its own path.

    1. Yes, it is a debate and as you mentioned, every university will have its own path. In my opinion, I think it is better to train researchers to better communicate with their students. By this, we ensure that students get what is in the last research in their fields through professors who are in contact with research.

  7. Given that many great researchers are not great teachers and that good teaching is very time consuming, it seems like in an ideal scenario, we’d have teachers that mostly teach and researchers that mostly research so that individuals in both roles can be more successful. There is likely some benefit of doing both, but it seems like it wouldn’t outweigh the benefit of being able to devote 100% of your time to either research or teaching.

    1. I think one problem of this attitude is that, while professors do research and can promote from assistants to full professors, we can see that instructors will not have the same chance. The universities’ system should change and dedicate tenure positions to these instructors that give them the chance to promote.

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