Re-framing teaching vs research

I enjoy visiting academic departments in other universities. There is something comforting about recognising an issue that is shared across many different departments. It might be common curricula, shared student challenges, staff issues or even a similar approach to dealing with a particular external challenge. I can feel reassurance when a department has the same problems as mine, especially if neither department has a solution!

But there is also the excitement of observing something new, an innovation, a disruptive response. How can that solution be brought back to my department. How can I reap similar benefits?

I particularly enjoy conversations with staff. When travelling, especially internationally, the barriers of rank seem to evaporate and we can talk freely as academics. This reveals insight that might otherwise have been obscured by status.

When they discover that I have a management role, the initial question is typically “so how do you manage teaching and research together?”, followed by the statement “I suppose that you don’t get time for research with all of the people administration”.

Such conversations are great openers for me. I am constantly challenging the notion of research versus teaching, preferring instead the view that each should be supporting the other. My role then has added justification, as my reasoning is that with a view that challenges the norm, I can use the management role to influence the academic environment for the better.

It’s difficult to change the status quo as an individual academic. I hear the argument that you don’t need rank to lead change, and in principle I agree with this.

But in some cases, it’s much easier to effect change if you directly control the systems that drive the behaviour of staff, such as academic workload planning, staff development and curriculum design, as these are the key instruments through which change can not only be instantiated, but also embedded into the department.

When I explain my desire for a healthier relationship between research and teaching, I find that most people say that they ‘get it’. Only they are hampered by the harsh realities of their university requiring growth of student numbers, with increased contact time, etc.

At this stage of the conversation the challenge is usually presented – “so how do you do it yourself, then?” – and it’s now time for me to advocate both my principles and my tactics for maintaining harmony.

My first principle is to believe that I should be teaching knowledge that I have created. Not exclusively, as there are fundamental concepts that need to be learned, but the university experience has to be more than learning from texts. We need to be in an environment that creates.

Second, I accept that it is my responsibility to help every student that is in my class, irrespective of their background. If they are enrolled, they deserve the best that I can offer.

In fact, what I have just done is articulate two views that are often held separately by academic staff; those with a more research orientation pursue the former, whilst those who are more teaching focused employ the latter.

My tactics for managing the delivery of both principles are wholly based upon productivity. As a researcher I must create  and disseminate knowledge. Disseminate to who though? Traditionally this has been to research communities of other academics. To  do this requires time spent performing experiments, writing up results and evaluations and then presenting it at events.

As a teacher I must plan and deliver challenging curricula that meets the needs of the student, in a way that engages and motivates them to succeed. Each student needs feedback on their progress, and a summative judgement of their performance at the end.

It is possible to fill the entire working week with either of the above activities, leading to academics who are either research or teaching focused. So, how do I manage to keep all of the plates spinning at the same time?

The breakthrough for me was realising that if I considered students as fellow learners, then the tasks that need to be completed could be shared amongst a wider body of people. For instance, if students are included within the research, as co-investigators, they are then contributors. One of the major benefits for research is that the opportunities for creativity and innovation are increased when students are involved.

Another benefit is that students who participate in the processes of research as part of their university experience develop learner autonomy faster. This of course bodes well for more advanced research topics later in their studies.

A third benefit is that a focus on the processes of research – or having students as active participants rather than passive audiences – means that the quality of intra-student interactions improves, providing more timely and tailored feed back for each student, that could not be provided by a single academic.

The final benefit is perhaps the most convincing. The sheer increase in volume of research material that is produced by a class of students led by an academic, versus the efforts of a lone academic is remarkable. In fact, you will begin to wonder how you will manage to write it all up.

The key tactic that facilitates the dissemination of this work is also a productivity tip. Academics who are prolific researchers ensure that they spend time writing. They protect their time for writing, as they know that this is the final hurdle between their research and its evaluation by the research community.

Academic staff far and wide have told me that they don’t have the time to write, mainly because of teaching. But when I challenge them to write for just ten minutes per day, before they open their email inboxes, they can then find at least an additional 50 minutes per week. Now this won’t be sufficient time to write up everything, but if we utilise similar approaches to writing as we might by including students in the co-creation of research outputs, then we can also engage students in the writing-up of the research that they have contributed to.

We all have the same amount of time per day, and the Higher Education industry can always demand more from academics than they can give. But a simple re-framing of the challenge of conducting teaching and research can yield significant benefits for staff and students alike.

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