Is it a good idea or a bad idea to talk about one's research interests and results in an undergraduate class? Does this enhance the class or does it bore and alienate the students?
While serving on committees that involve gazing at a large number of teaching evaluations for professors at my university, both within and beyond my department, I have been fascinated by examples in which students comment on professors who mention their research in their lectures in undergraduate classes.
Some students hate it when professors talk about their research in a class. Some students think it is very interesting and a great addition to a class.
What interests me is that it is rare for there to be a mix of opinions for any one professor. That is, either students make mostly positive comments about a professor's discussion of their research or they criticize the professor for discussing research in the class.
It seems, therefore, that there are good ways to talk about your research in class, and there are bad ways to talk about your research in class.
From what I've inferred from reading a large number of teaching evaluations, it is seldom the case that criticism of research-mentions in class is the only negative comment that students make. If students are unhappy with other aspects of the class (e.g., organization, clarity, degree of difficulty of exams, perceived fairness of grading, accessibility of professor), they may interpret the mention of research as one more piece of evidence that proves that the professor doesn't care about teaching. In these cases, students write in teaching evaluations: "Professor X only cares about research."
If, however, students are engaged in the class and feel that the professor cares about them, in-class discussion of the professor's research is interpreted as one more piece of evidence that proves that the professor cares about teaching. In these cases, students write in teaching evaluations: "Professor Z is the perfect example of a university professor because he effectively integrates his research with his teaching. I wish more professors at the university would do this." [real example, paraphrased and included with permission of Professor Z]
In some cases that I have seen in which students wrote in a teaching evaluation that the professor only cares about research (mentioning specifically that the professor talked about his/her research in class instead of the "relevant" materials), there was abundant evidence in the dossier as a whole to show that the professors did in fact care a lot about both teaching and research. These professors, however, are not (yet) effective teachers, at least for certain types of courses (typically large lecture-format courses for non-majors).
Some naturally talented teachers can probably integrate research examples seamlessly into their classes from Day One. For the rest of us, it's best to get the course running smoothly in terms of logistics first, show the students that we respect them and are interested in helping them learn, and then make sure that references to our research are clearly explained in the context of the class.
It might seem like there is a major difference between inserting interesting examples of a topic about which we are passionate and that we think will help our students be more engaged in the course material vs. talking about something that really interests us instead of the boring course material we were assigned to present, but, perhaps from the perspective of the students, this distinction is not so obvious, especially if they are anxious and confused about the course.
Some recent criticisms of US universities have specifically complained about professors who talk about their obscure research interests in class, as if no one could possibly be interested in these topics except the professor in question. A professor who talks about their research in a class is wasting their students' time.
I disagree. I think that talking about research in any class -- from a large lecture-format intro class of non-majors to upper level courses for majors -- can be a very good thing that enhances the class experience for the students and engages them in the topic. The integration of research into classroom teaching has to be done carefully and well, but it can and should be done.
I am speaking from my point of view as a Science Professor who sees a lot of interesting and cutting edge Science being done at her university. It's important to tell students about this, to involve them in the excitement of discoveries, and let them see how scientists work. The research being done at their university is not being carried out by anonymous, unknown people in distant labs. Some of it is being done by their professor and by their teaching assistants, perhaps in the same building in which the class is held. And perhaps some of these students will get involved in a research project as part of their undergraduate studies.
I am most familiar with incorporating elements of Science research in teaching, but I strongly believe that the general principle applies no matter what the academic discipline and no matter how (apparently) obscure the research topic.