Sunday, November 06, 2011

Teaching - Coleman vs. Feynman

As pointed out by Peter Woit, Steve Hsu recently posted a link to an interview with (the late) Sidney Coleman, generally viewed as one of the premier theoretical physicists of his generation. Ironically, for someone known as an excellent lecturer, Coleman apparently hated teaching, likening it to "washing dishes" or "waxing floors" - two activities he could do well, from which he derived a small amount of "job well done" satisfaction, but which he would never choose to do voluntarily.

It's fun to contrast this with the view of Richard Feynman, as he put it in Surely You Must Be Joking, Mr. Feynman:
I don't believe I can really do without teaching. The reason is, I have to have something so that when I don't have any ideas and I'm not getting anywhere I can say to myself, "At least I'm living; at least I'm doing something; I am making some contribution" -- it's just psychological.... The questions of the students are often the source of new research. They often ask profound questions that I've thought about at times and then given up on, so to speak, for a while. It wouldn't do me any harm to think about them again and see if I can go any further now. The students may not be able to see the thing I want to answer, or the subtleties I want to think about, but they remind me of a problem by asking questions in the neighborhood of that problem. It's not so easy to remind yourself of these things. So I find that teaching and the students keep life going, and I would never accept any position in which somebody has invented a happy situation for me where I don't have to teach. Never.
I definitely lean toward the Feynman attitude. Teaching - explaining science to others - is fun, important, and helpful to my own work. Perhaps Coleman was simply so powerful in terms of creativity in research that teaching always seemed like an annoying distraction. In these days when there are so many expectations on faculty members beyond teaching, I hope we're not culturally rewarding a drift toward the Coleman position.


Anonymous said...

As someone who prides himself on both his teaching and dishwashing abilities, I appreciate Coleman's analogy.

Max Furniture said...

The thoughts of Coleman and Feynman are correct on their part. All people have different thoughts on a subject matter but we should respect them.