June 8, 1995
Vol. 14, No. 19

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    Graduate Teaching Photo: Robert Richards

    Teaching and research are intimately connected for Robert Richards, who holds interdisciplinary appointments as Professor in History, Philosophy, Psychology, Conceptual Foundations of Science and the Committee on Evolutionary Biology. He is also Director of the Fishbein Center for the History of Science & Medicine and Director of the undergraduate Program in History, Philosophy and Social Studies of Sciences & Medicine (HiPSS).

    "I have learned a great deal from the interaction with my students. There will be a trail of footnotes in this book referring back to student papers," said Richards, who is currently at work on a book titled Romantic Biology and teaches a course of the same name.

    "Here at Chicago you can teach courses that are intimately connected with your research," he said. "That can be a liability in that graduate students may not get broad coverage at an introductory level in a particular discipline. But at the same time, students have the opportunity to become caught up in the research, and that can be exhilarating."

    Richards has high praise for both the quality of the students at Chicago and the atmosphere that permits this level of discourse.

    "Teaching here at the University of Chicago is really quite a privilege, because you can do things with students here that are very difficult to do with students at other places," he said. "The graduate students here are extremely talented, and it is easy to relate to them as both students and colleagues."

    Each quarter, Richards joins with other faculty members and first- and second-year graduate students in Conceptual Foundations of Science and the Fishbein Center for a two-hour lunchtime seminar held every other Friday.

    The topic of this quarter's Seminar on Important Things was the history and philosophy of experiments in high-energy physics. Past topics have included "Sex & Society in Ancient Greece," "The Social Explanation of Scientific Knowledge" and "The Rhetoric of Economics."

    "For this seminar, we read the most recent work in the history and philosophy of science and argue incessantly about it. So over sandwiches and soda we discuss fundamental questions of the meaning of science, the meaning of life and, sometimes, whether the Bulls have a chance of ever winning again," said Richards.

    Richards, who concentrates his research on the history and philosophy of biology, said that meeting students on common ground and being able to consider important questions with them contributes greatly to his own research.

    "I have students doing dissertations with me who disagree with me on very fundamental issues, and we argue constantly. It's a kind of discussion in which both parties grow immeasurably from the interaction," he said.

    "Part of the delight is that the students are receptive to persuasive arguments -- and they mistakenly believe that I am receptive to convincing arguments as well," he added with a smile.

    Richards came to Chicago as a graduate student in 1974, and he joined the faculty after receiving a Ph.D. in the history of science from the University in 1978. He said he considered other opportunities, but found Chicago to be a unique and energizing place.

    "Chicago has a passionate intensity and a gritty feeling about it," he said. "It's a university of the 'big intellect' in the 'City of Big Shoulders,' and something about the very character of the city permeates the University. It's difficult to say exactly why, but Chicago is quite different from any other university that I know about. The faculty is extraordinary and the atmosphere is intellectually vibrant."

    Richards spent one semester -- in the spring of 1983 -- as a visiting professor at Harvard, where he lived and ate with students. "I don't think an intellectual topic came up for discussion at mealtime more than once during the whole time I was there," he said. "But here at Chicago you have Aristotle with your corn flakes."

    Richards received a Ph.D. in philosophy in 1971 from St. Louis University and an M.A. in biological psychology in 1974 from the University of Nebraska. This is the second teaching award for Richards -- he received the Quantrell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching in 1982.

    "The greatest rewards in teaching here at Chicago are the intellectually innovative and personally nice students. You have the sneaking suspicion that they are smarter than you are, but they are nice about it," Richards said, laughing. "But my biggest disappointment is that I have never been able to convince any of them to play handball with me. That is something quite deficient in their education."

    -- Diana Steele