Yours, mine, and ours: What effects does a shared self-transcendent purpose have in the classroom?

Why do you do the work you do? What motivates you to persist when it’s tough—when you read a review that stings, when a piece of equipment dies, when a colleague leaves? Sure, part of it’s the paycheck; most of us rely on that in a very practical way. But if you’re an academic, and more specifically an academic scientist, I bet part of your answer is that your work is a big part of your life’s purpose—that you are contributing to something larger and more important than yourself.

This kind of self-transcendent purpose has incredible value. It’s part of what helps us build our “me” and “we” identities (Eccles, 2009), and it can help people persist and find value in mundane and taxing tasks (Yaeger et al., 2014, and references therein). And communities that endorse a shared self-transcendent purpose can produce outcomes that are enormously beneficial. I think the scientific community epitomizes that. We share a commitment to understanding the natural world, often trying to use that understanding for inventions—new medicines, enhanced crops, new technologies—to improve the human experience.  During my 20+ years in science, I’ve seen this sense of shared purpose lead people to work harder, think more creatively and critically, and collaborate productively in pursuit of a common good more times than I can count, and I think it’s one of our strengths as a field.

And yet. Our greatest strengths may also be our greatest weaknesses.

I think there can be negative consequences to this shared self-transcendent purpose, specifically in our classrooms. I think it can lead us to create exclusive classroom settings, to devalue evidence-based teaching practices, and to overvalue content. [Yes, I agree that these are overlapping pieces of the same idea, but I think they are worth parsing out to some degree.] Here are my musings on how that can happen.

 When we are teaching, many of us are trying to help our students see the truth and beauty of the natural world. We want them to understand how we have collectively built our current picture of the natural world and to know something about how we are still clarifying and extending our knowledge. When we have students who see that beauty and who share a nascent form of our purpose—a curiosity about how the natural world works and a willingness to work hard to satisfy that curiosity—we welcome them in. But what about the students who don’t seem to have any interest in the natural world? Or just want to know about it to become doctors? Or aren’t willing to work as hard as we think they should? When these students appear in our classes—and they do, every semester—I think our collective, often unarticulated, self-transcendent purpose may lead us to disregard them in subtle but important ways that make these students feel they don’t belong. Alternatively (or perhaps additionally), these students may recognize that they don’t share this key value with us, so they may perceive that we are unwelcoming. (And we may be.)

I think our shared self-transcendent purpose may also be at the heart of why we have been slow to adopt evidence-based teaching practices. In 2012, Sara Brownell and Kimberly Tanner published an article called Barriers to Faculty Pedagogical Change: Lack of Training, Time, Incentives, and…Tensions with Professional Identity? that has influenced my thinking for years.  In it, they assert that having a scientific professional identity creates tension points with adopting pedagogical change. They note that graduate school, “the shared playground, where scientists learn the culture and values of the field,” cultivates a research identity but not a teaching identity and that junior scientists are often afraid to “come out” as teachers (see Mark Connolly’s work:  Connolly, 2010, as well as his Longitudinal Study of STEM Scholars), perhaps because the professional culture of science considers teaching to be lower status than research (Brownell and Tanner, 2012). The question to me, however, is why? I think the answer lies in our shared self-transcendent purpose. If our shared goal as a community is an understanding of the natural world, and we derive this understanding through research, then it follows that we prioritize research. That is, our primary responsibility is expanding our collective knowledge. Sure, we should teach. We have to have a way to bring the next generation of scientists into the fold. According to this view, however, we don’t need to spend too much time or too many cognitive resources on teaching. Doing so takes resources that are more appropriately spent on what we, as a field, have agreed is most important: pursuit of new knowledge through research. Adopting new-to-us teaching practices can be hard and time-consuming (although I don’t think it has to be), and I think that is perceived as inconsistent with our larger purpose.

And perhaps it’s stating the obvious, but I think our self-transcendent purpose is at the heart of why we value our content so deeply. If we are spending our lives in pursuit of understanding the natural world in great and nuanced detail, how can we leave that out of our classes? Isn’t that the whole point? This amazingly complex and beautiful, if incomplete, picture of how natural processes work? To delete content can feel like a strike at the heart of our goals.

As we think about how to welcome more students—more people in general—into science, I think it’s worth considering our shared values as scientists. How can we use these values to be inclusive rather than exclusive? How can we adopt a longer-term or larger perspective that allows us to capture the value of our shared self-transcendent purpose without some of the unintended negative consequences? I’d love to hear what you think.

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