Relentlessly re-explaining

I was at a workshop a few months ago where the people were almost evenly divided: one-third government, one-third industry; and one-third academia. It struck me, as it hadn’t before, how much better the academics were at explaining things. Of course, we all know academics whose presentations are dreadful: both dull and incomprehensible but, on average, the quality of the academic’s presentations was much, much better than that of the other two groups.

Thinking about this, I realized that it’s another facet of scholarship. One of the (mostly invisible) things that research-active academics do is to take ideas and results from the cutting edge of knowledge and digest, rework, and refactor them to extract the key aspects and get rid of the unavoidable autobiography that goes along with research results. This is mostly why an undergraduate education is better at a research-intensive university. And why undergraduate degrees don’t keep getting longer, although the quantity of stuff we know is growing rapidly.

But there’s another aspect to this which I, at least, had under-rated. That is the relentless, year after year presentation of “the same” ideas to a a new crop of students who don’t already understand them. Of course, the ideas themselves are not the same from year to year — I taught the same course for twenty years, but I was still improving it and seeing implications that had previously escaped me. But the work of presenting the ideas over and over again, by itself, forces me to rethink and say things in different (and better) ways each time. This output side of scholarship was something I had not really appreciated enough. And I think it’s the explanation for why academics are better at communicating to a mixed audience than those who only ever talk to people from the same backgrounds.

I had always felt that working in a research lab rather than a university would be a more sterile experience, and now I think that I understand why. So this post is really a big thank you to all of my students, undergraduates and graduates, for making it possible for me to explain to you. and in the process understand better myself. And to those who got the earlier versions, my apologies, but it simply isn’t possible to polish first and then teach.

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