Linking research and teaching

I recently came across an article for new academic staff on jobs.ac.uk which suggested ways to balance the various demands of a new academic post. Although the article is called ‘Integrating Teaching Responsibilities with Admin and Research‘, what it really seems to be saying is that, as a new academic, it is important that you find time for all three. It is true that, in a new (or fixed-term) academic post, there can be huge pressure from the teaching side as new or temporary staff have to take on large survey, unfamiliar and/or unpopular courses. And it’s also true that, if you plan to be a teaching and researching academic (rather than focusing on one or the other), you need to find time and space to continue to attend conferences, apply for funding and publish papers. In addition, as Dr. Armstrong argues, it is helpful to attend meetings in order to get used to the way that academic decision-making works, and to show that you’re collegial and want to be involved in the life of the department.

What I think her article lacks is a real sense of how you can balance all of these demands through real integration. So I started to think about how one might go about integrating these competing ‘demands’ into a more manageable ‘whole’ that might actually progress your career. Here I’m going to offer some thoughts on integrating research with teaching and, in a forthcoming post, I’ll say a bit about linking administration with the other aspects of an academic role.

Think process rather than content

In my experience, academics often miss potential connections between their teaching and research because they’re too focussed on content rather than process. So, for instance, a scholar of modern literature will say that their course on 18th century literature has nothing to do with their research. However, if we were to think more about the broader processes of reading, analysing and critiquing literature, the two clearly have a huge amount in common. This feeds into the second point, which is to

Consider what HE teaching is really about

When we’re teaching students about 18th century literature, a part of that process is clearly about understanding the social, political and cultural context in which the writing takes place. However, a large portion of what we’re doing is trying to teach students an approach to literature in general which will help them to think critically about writing and to understand how and why that broader context may be important. As a literary scholar (of whatever period, culture, etc) you are in possession of skills which you will want to encourage in your students. You won’t encourage those skills by knowing everything there is to know about the 18th century, but by helping them to understand the process and approach that literary scholars use to understand texts.  Furthermore, what you bring to teaching as a researcher is not all of the answers to all potential questions, but a better understanding of how to find ‘answers’ than your students are likely to have. Coming prepared to answer all of your students’ questions is likely to diminish your potential to encourage independent learning of the transferable skills that may be of real use to them in the future.

Make good use of what your role as a researcher can bring to your role as a teacher (and vice versa)

Thinking of teaching and research as two separate tasks not only means you tend to think of time spent on one as time lost on the other, but it can also undermine the potential benefits that flow between the two. As a researcher you have enthusiasm for your subject that can have a really positive impact on students – and when students see that you’re passionate, invested and interested, they’re more likely to feel motivated and interested themselves, making them much easier to teach. You’re also good at asking interesting and important questions and, as suggested above, helping students to see what the important questions are is, perhaps, as important as being able to answer questions (or at least the first step). You might also have your own data or methods that can be introduced into your teaching, and which have not been used by any other students on any other course. Not only does that help prevent some forms of plagiarism (students can’t copy last year’s exam answers when they’re working with data that wasn’t available then!) but students feel that they’re making a contribution to real research and see that they’re getting something from you that they couldn’t get in any other course in any other university.

In terms of bringing teaching into research, lots of academics report that teaching forces them to take a step back and consider the broader discipline and its fundamental principles every once in a while. But taking a research-type approach to teaching can also be beneficial in other ways. For instance, it always surprises me that successful researchers can launch into teaching with nothing but their own prior experience to guide them. They would never take this approach to conducting an experiment or writing a paper – at the very least they would read about what others have already done, maybe talk to colleagues about what they have tried and spend a bit of time carefully considering their own knowledge, successes and failures. Taking this approach to teaching might initially be more time-consuming than simply launching in, but it’s likely to be more effective and efficient in the long term (just as plenty of research is required to get that paper published). And it might also lead to your own publications in pedagogy, which are great for your CV. Clearly the written and oral communication skills developed through teaching are also really helpful in research, especially when thinking about how complex ideas can be conveyed to a range of different audiences.

These are just a few thoughts, and there is a whole literature around bringing teaching and research together for the mutual benefit of both (as well as for helping staff to juggle what can seem like competing demands). Some key further readings would be:

  • Brew, Angela and David Boud, (1995) Teaching and research: Establishing the vital link with learning. Higher Education, 29 (3), 261-273.
  • Brew, Angela (1999) Research and teaching: Changing relationships in a changing context. Studies in Higher Education, 24 (3), 291–301.
  • Brew, Angela (2001) Conceptions of Research: a phenomenographic study. Studies in Higher Education, 26 (3), 271-285.
  • Davis, J. W., C. Arlett, S. Carpenter, F. Lamb and L. Donaghy (2006) What makes a good Engineering Lecturer?: Students put their Thoughts into Writing. European Journal of Engineering Education, 31 (5), 543-553.
  • Hattie, J., and H. Marsh (1996) The relationship between research and teaching: a meta-analysis.  Review of Educational Research, 66 ( 4), 507-542.
  • Healy, Mick. (2006) Linking research and teaching: exploring disciplinary spaces and the role of enquiry-based learning. In Ronald Barnett (ed.), Reshaping the University: New Relations between Research, Scholarship and Teaching (pp.  67-78). Maidenhead: Open University.
  • Jenkins, Alan, Mick Healey and Roger Zetter (2007). Linking Teaching and Research in Disciplines and Departments. Report for the Higher Education Academy.  Access here
  • Neumann, Ruth (1992) “Perceptions of the teaching-research nexus: a framework for analysis”. Higher Education, 23, 159-171.
  • Neumann, Ruth (1993) “Research and scholarship: Perceptions of senior academic administrators”. Higher Education, 25, pp. 97–110.
  • Ramsden, Paul (2006).  Learning to Teach in Higher Education, London: Routeledge.
  • Rowland, Stephen (1996) “Relationship between teaching and research”. Teaching in Higher Education, 1, 7–20.

What do you think? Any more suggestions about how integrating research and teaching might help academics to do both better?

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