This past weekend, I attended my first education-focused conference with a couple people who’ve been affiliated with Spelman, where I was a CURE postdoctoral fellow. We led a panel discussion at CUR 2018 on what it’s like to be a postdoc at a liberal arts school and on how similar institutions can successfully implement postdoctoral programs of their own. Working at Spelman has been my only experience at a liberal arts college, and of course, Spelman is also unique in that it’s an HBC for women. The transition from the University of Georgia (my graduate school home) to Spelman came with its challenges, and in particular I struggled to produce research in an environment so different from the R01’s of my past. The nine months I had set aside for this first postdoctoral position weren’t quite enough to completely find my footing and feel confident in the work I was doing (but don’t get me wrong, I still had a great experience!). Because of this, I felt honored but also a bit nervous to represent Spelman on a conference stage.
After arriving at CUR 2018, I was both put at ease and deeply moved by the opening talk by Dr. Freeman Hrabowski. At many a research conference, I’ve heard plenaries that promote advancement of the field and/or discuss extremely charismatic research projects. Those kinds of talks are important; they motivate us to do our best work as scientists, and they captivate us by telling true stories that sound like the stuff of science fiction. I’ve also heard a few plenary speakers lament scientific illiteracy in our society, which is indeed a depressing problem that contributes to the path of destruction our planet is on. But the plenary speaker at CUR 2018 was completely different, in that he reminded us that humans have an innate capacity for personal growth and that we, as academics, have a responsibility to do the work of social justice. As educators, we must fight for everyone to have access to education, not just in lectures and standardized lab classes, but in the process of independent inquiry through research. My favorite quote from his talk was “anyone at any age can learn anything.” Whether or not that’s strictly true, if we adopt it as our default belief about everyone we meet, how can we not develop a passion for interacting with our fellow human beings? How can we not assume the best about people? How can we resist sharing our love for science, the scientific process, and the evidence-based decision-making that it empowers us to do? Beyond this one particular quote that so captivated me, the rest of Freeman’s speech was pretty great, too. In fact, he got a standing ovation at the end. And throughout the rest of my conference attendance, as I observed various talks and posters, presented at my panel session, and chatted with my fellow attendees, I noticed that the whole atmosphere was one of positivity and faith in humanity’s ability to better itself through education. To say the least, it was my favorite conference that I’ve ever attended.
I’m not suggesting that teaching is better than research, that it’s wrong to want to get experiments done and papers published, or even that every research group should take on every student who applies to be a part of it. In the world of academic science, we often have to produce the research that we love at a pace we don’t love, and we can’t assume responsibility for everyone who wants to join us in that intense, time-consuming, often painstaking endeavor. (But if we don’t have the resources to take them on, hopefully we can point them in the right direction! And if the right direction doesn’t exist, we need to fight for it to exist!) Anyway, research is vital beyond measure to our planet’s health, our own well-being, and our progress as a society. But I do think that research culture can cause us to miss the forest for the trees. The independence and intensity that research demands of us force us to constantly scrutinize ourselves and the work that we’re doing. If we don’t balance that necessary self-centeredness with connection with – and compassion for – our fellow humans, we risk cutting ourselves off from the things that are most meaningful. So if research is your jam, by all means, get huge sums of grant money, publish top-notch papers in top-tier journals, and feel proud of yourself for surviving in such a fiercely competitive field. Go to lots of research conferences, engage in shameless self-promotion (within reason), and if you’re fortunate enough to get a plenary speaking gig, talk about some super cool science if you want to! But one of these days, in that elusive spare time we all hear about but never seem to have, you just might want to check out an education conference. I bet it will make you feel a whole lot better about the world.