Hey teach!

Lesson of the Day: Lecturers in grad school are not hired for their teaching ability.

This isn’t so much an observation as it is a quote, verbatim, from the instructor for our first ever class in graduate school.
It’s vaguely evident to a certain degree in undergrad studies when you see professors running around the department, hosting seminars, and crashing the occasional free food events whom you’ve never seen in any sort of classroom setting. Heck, I did research for one as undergrad. But you don’t really realize why they’re not teaching until you hit grad school and have to take a class with them.
They’re the big guns. The research powerhouses. They’re hired for their research abilities, ability to pull money into the department (probably first and foremost, but I’m not going to pretend to know), and their reputation or potential for future reputation. If they can teach too, all the better. It’s certainly not a heavy requirement. And, of course, they’ve got things they’d rather be doing than teaching.
So the professor teaching our first class spilled these beans on our first day, and it seems to hold more or less true. There’s a good reason for it to. At a certain point, particularly in the sciences, the need for expertise supersedes the need for clarity. Grad school is that line in the sand. So teaching ability is sometimes sacrificed for potential knowledge. The professor made that pretty clear further on in the class.
“So how many of you brushed your teeth this morning?” he asked.
None of us were going to admit we didn’t even if it was true.
Ok, good. Now who knows what your toothbrush handle was made out of?”
We didn’t know. Or at least no one volunteered the information. Being a program in polymer science, odds were good it was a polymer, but which specific one out of millions was an answer we couldn’t give.
“See,” the professor continued. “There are certain things that people don’t need to know in their everyday life. Who cares what their toothbrush handle is made out of? But someone somewhere knows what it’s made of. And who should know if not the people with PhDs in polymer science?”
It was a pretty poignant way to introduce us to masters/doctoral classes. Then of course he went on a rambling, slightly disjointed lecture about the philosophy of science which few of us really cared for, proving the Lesson of the Day. But he knows what toothbrush handles are made of, so we’re on a good path.
(For the record, perhaps so someone can give the smart answer we couldn’t, your toothbrush handle is most often made of polyethylene teraphthalate (PET) – the same stuff they use in soda bottles and some kinds of tape.)
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