Home » Courses » History » Medieval Economic History in Comparative Perspective » This Course at MIT » The Intersection of Research and Teaching
In this section, Prof. McCants suggests that faculty often aren't the best teachers for topics that they're actively researching.
We should probably not be teaching our expertise because we know it so well, we're so deeply invested in all the arguments, and we're so caught up in all the minute details, that we end up with lousy lectures.
— Prof. McCants
When an expert teaches a topic they are actively researching, they certainly can bring unique expertise as well as contagious enthusiasm to the topic.
However, beyond that, I think that the worst teaching I ever do is when I teach about what I'm actually working on. I have plenty of colleagues who, under duress, have admitted the same thing. We don't like to admit it because we all think that's what we should be teaching.
We should probably not be teaching our expertise because we know it so well, we're so deeply invested in all the arguments, and we're so caught up in all the minute details, that we end up with lousy lectures. We don't work as hard at trying to persuade the students why it's important because it's so obvious to us. I think that this is potentially a big pitfall for teaching.
I'm really conscious about that. When I get to some moment in the course where I'm teaching something I'm currently working on, I try to keep it really short. If possible, I get someone else to come in and do it, though I know that sounds absurd.
I usually assign exactly one thing I've written as a reading; in Spring 2012, it was the article, "Exotic Goods, Popular Consumption, and the Standard of Living: Thinking about Globalization in the Early Modern World." I want my students to know I actually do write. I try to have the TAs teach it in recitation rather than have me teach it in lecture, and that's always the class where I feel like students in my own recitation would have been better off being in one of the other recitation sections.
On the other hand, the questions students ask me about random topics I'm not working on can start whole new projects, which is super exciting. My current research project on gothic cathedral buildings came entirely out of my teaching. I was lecturing to the students and thinking, "I can't even explain this to myself. What am I going to do if they ask me a question about this?" In the process of writing a lecture, if I find something that's inconsistent, that sends me into the archives to try to figure it out.