Professors and administrators at the College of William and Mary discussed the role of research at the College Wednesday in the second session in “Campus Conversations,” a series of forums sponsored by the College’s Office of the Provost.
The panel of professors, moderated by College Provost Michael R. Halleran, agreed that research-based teaching is beneficial to both the College’s community and its reputation. They also noted that research can give students important hands-on experience in their potential fields of interest.
Marine science professor Mark Patterson said that research on the undergraduate level can have far-reaching benefits beyond a student’s educational enrichment.
“Many of my undergrad classmates engaged in research, and all found it a very positive formative experience, not just those that went on to graduate school and careers as professors,” Patterson said.
Classical studies professor Lily Panoussi said that the College’s unique size means that there are a good number of faculty members and students to work with, but it is still possible to maintain familiarity.
“Students feed off [professors’s] excitement and enthusiasm,” Panoussi said.
She also emphasized the flexibility of education.
“Research means different things to different disciplines,” Panoussi said. “I think that we need to educate each other, as well as our community of students and alumni, as to what research means for each constituency of arts and sciences. I suggest we have an open mind about the nature of research, resist narrow definitions, and most importantly, listen to each other.”
Economics professor Eric Jensen contested the university’s label as a liberal arts university because of large class sizes, but said that the College is also not a research mill.
“Research is necessary at William and Mary … [because] it is what we do,” Jensen said. “It has important implications for faculty quality and, in many disciplines, for the College’s revenue stream.”
Jensen agreed with some audience members that graduate students can play significant roles in undergraduate research.
“Since the arrival of graduate students on the William and Mary campus, there has been a bright, shining line that graduate students could not cross — they cannot teach classes here. Research-based teaching blurs the line somewhat,” Jensen said.
Patterson argued that exploiting graduate students to teach introductory classes such as economics 101 results in poor work.
Interdisciplinary research was emphasized as a way of improving faculty and helping students grow intellectually.
“We want our students to be inspired, and the only way to do that is to share with them our own discoveries, our own excitement about the attainment of new knowledge,” Panoussi said.
Neuroscience professor John Griffin agreed about the importance of student research.
“There are undergrads in my lab right now — hopefully nothing will blow up,” Griffin said. “Undergrads are essential to my culture; they get volumes down, which allows me to request grants for research.”
While making senior theses mandatory for graduation was discussed, Halleran said it was unlikely.
“We want to increase research opportunities, not requirements,” he said.
Panoussi said giving teachers and students credit for research would make research more integral at the undergraduate level.
“It seems clear that if we can sustain a model of strong faculty research blended with intensive, research-based teaching, we will occupy a very desirable niche,” Jensen said.