Connecting teaching and research

In the early 1990s, I was a Professor of Law at an English university. Back then, the Research Assessment Exercise was getting into its tortuous stride. And at the same time, what was then the ‘Academic Audit Unit‘ (later to become the Quality Assurance Agency) was setting up the first round of ‘quality assessment’ to examine the quality of teaching and learning. I remember being at a workshop on quality assurance, and at that event some of the representatives of what had just become the ‘new universities’ (former polytechnics) suggested that while the ‘old’ universities might have cornered the market in research performance, teaching quality was the new universities’ playing field and they would scoop the awards. Not a bit. When the first outcomes of quality assessment visits were published, the most research intensive universities also tended to record the best teaching quality results.

This should never have been a surprise. Though this has on occasion been debated, there is plenty of evidence to show that a research intensive backdrop adds huge value to teaching, and is perceived that way by the users. That is not to say that there are no really gifted teachers who are not hugely research active, but they are the exception rather than the rule. And a department, Faculty or university that has a lively research culture will tend to convey the excitement of that culture in the teaching classroom; and of course, the faculty will tend to be better informed and at the cutting edge.

Nevertheless, there are tensions between good research and teaching. As research projects become ever more specialised and complex, the key researchers find they have less time for teaching, and may even find the more generalist nature of undergraduate programmes to be a distraction. And in order to cover for the reduced teaching participation of those researchers, work in the classroom is sometimes piled on for those whose research performance is not as intensive, leading to the research of those staff falling apart completely. Sometimes, and in some institutions, it may appear that the trajectories of teachers and researchers are separating.

This, however, is not a good development. While research does of course have a hugely significant importance in its own right, the design of a top class university should in all cases include the expectation that researchers teach, and teachers do research; in fact, there should only be one class of ‘academic’, although of course individual academics may focus somewhat more on one side rather than the other (and many will have early periods in their careers as researchers only): but overall an academic should be active in both. This is the basis on which academic careers are constructed in my university, DCU.

As some recent public commentary has shown, there is a feeling amongst some of our stakeholders that students do not, or do not sufficiently, get to experience teaching conducted by some of the top researchers; and this has led to the view in some quarters that university research has become a distraction and may need to be scaled down. As I have noted elsewhere, that is an extraordinarily dangerous notion, which may do major damage to Ireland’s future prospects. But it would equally have to be said that universities may need to look again at how teaching duties are assigned, and whether it is indeed true that students do not get the proper advantage of experiencing some of the top researchers. We would lose the concept of the academy if we allow these roles to become separate; and we would become hugely vulnerable in public debates about our institutional futures. It is time to look again to ensure we are doing this right.

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9 Comments on “Connecting teaching and research”

  1. Vincent Says:

    But there is nothing new in this, It is one of the ongoing tensions in any good University, one of many. The only difference these days is in the overlap in the research projects with one project at the writing up stage while another in its early, with something else on the backburner.
    In the old days, the department could manage the periods when time was constrained by other work.

  2. Kelly Says:

    I don’t think the issue is just about ensuring that top researchers do their share of teaching. The separation of teaching and research activities is part of the architecture of many universities (e.g. research committees and teaching committees who do not talk to each other) and many academics forge their careers trying to do both but inevitably become seen (and see themselves) as primarily a researcher or a teacher. Worst of all, in many research-oriented universities, those academics who become primarily seen as teachers are perceived by some to be those who just couldn’t cut it in research.

    So research and teaching are organized as separate activities and research has an elevated status. This year we were discussing the teaching-research debate in our PG Cert in Teaching and Learning in HE course and one of our academic participants on the programme stated that the reason I had credibility to teach on the course was because I did research in the field. Shouldn’t being an excellent teacher give you most of the requirements you need to teach academics about teaching?

  3. iain Says:

    It’s also interesting to note that even in those institutions which are renowned for their research and which have high quality teaching assessments, it is often not the @research stars@ that are actually teaching but that the students are often mainly taught by staff who are primarily teaching oriented (and a lot of PhD students in a support role) – so it is sometimes about the atmosphere or the culture of the institution. I wonder too if the teaching ratings are also influenced by the overall public status of the institution and the sense of pride that might engender in the students. After all they may feel positive about themselves at having a place in such a prestigious institution and that boosts confidence, engagement and performance. So the ratings in the UK system might also have been influenced by this ( a variant of the ‘halo effect’) too.


    • Iain, we did do some research on this in my last institution, looking at the student feedback on individual lecturers and comparing that with their research profiles. Forget about the research ‘stars’ for a moment, where it is possible that students would respond in a ‘star-struck’ way. Taking just those lecturers near the beginning of their careers, those that were heavily research active overwhelmingly came out with better student feedback on their teaching. This was true of almost all disciplines. The gifted, non-research active teacher was a very rare phenomenon in terms of student feedback – though there were one or two.

      • Iain Says:

        That’s a good point too. What I was commenting on was subtly different in that it was the institutional Teaching Assessment scores as opposed to individual student feedback on lecturers which would in themselves, as you have articulated, be more revealing. The institutional ratings were very much as you implied, that those non-research active institutions ended up doing less well on the rankings than (they) might have been naively expected.

        Early-career full of commitment, zeal and energy and able to juggle so many dimensions at once …at which stage do such burn-out then? does that happen at all?

  4. otto Says:

    To emphasise one aspect of what iain says, a very good way to ensure small group discussion for undergrads is to have seminars etc run by PhD students, but that can only be done with good postgraduates who want to study at research-excellent institutions.

  5. Jilly Says:

    I think the particular demands of research (and to some extent teaching) do vary from discipline to discipline, so I can only speak of the issues in humanities.

    I have never seen any conceptual problems in combining teaching and research: as you say in today’s piece, they complement each other extremely well.

    However, some of the practical – even physical – demands of the two do compete in ways which can be very stressful and hard to manage. The primary issue is one of ‘head space’. The nature of research, whether it’s in the actual research stage or the writing-up stage, requires a phenomenal degree of focus and concentration. I certainly find it extremely difficult (if not impossible) to do ‘a couple of hours’ of research on a day when I’m also doing, say, a couple of hours teaching and also have an office hour. Because of this, there’s a need to ‘block out’ space for research of at least a day at a time, if anything really useful is to be done. The only exception to this for me is tidying up footnotes, which I can do in bits and pieces.

    The actual research period also typically brings with it the need to be somewhere other than your office: your own university library, Trinity library, the National Library, the National Archives etc. Unless you work in Trinity, this generally also means you need to give it a whole day. And a day when you’ll be largely incommunicado to your department too, as you can’t be on email or (worse!) your phone, while you’re in the National Archives.

    This ‘blocking out’ of space in a week is theoretically possible, and in good weeks I manage it. Certain days in college, certain days in the library, etc. But the fly in this ointment is administration, in which I include communication with students. For example, when meetings get scheduled on the one day you had blocked out for the library, and that’s most of that week’s research time gone, even if the meeting only lasts an hour. And that’s just meetings – there are so many other ways in which you get sucked into doing administration on ‘research’ days (email and mobile phones are not a blessing in this respect).

    Of the three activities competing for our time on any given day – teaching, research, administration – research is ALWAYS the least urgent, and therefore gets pushed aside very easily. The result of this is often a constant feeling of guilt: when you’re doing research you worry about what’s piling up in your email, and when you’re doing admin/teaching preparation etc, you feel stressed that your research schedule is falling behind.

    Of course most of us manage this by muddling along in the way everyone muddles along with their work schedules – work is never finished, after all. But it is stressful, especially when forging a career demands that you do both and to a high standard.


    • I fully agree with those issues, Jilly, and it was much the same for me when I was working on my research profile earlier in my career. The only thing I would say now is, try doing research while doing this current job: it’s even more difficult to get the time. Not because I am so more hyper busy than anyone else, but because my schedule is not at all, ever, under my control.

  6. Joseph Says:

    Jilly, I do enjoy your comments. They often agree with my own personal experience.

    I had always expected that, as a tenured academic, I’d have similar support from my university and unit as those professors I had witnessed and respected over the years at my previous six institutions.

    – You raised decent research money? Here is (perhaps part of) a (competent) administrative assistant to help you with your university and grant paperwork, travel, finances, etc. Oh, and if they cannot or will not do their job properly, you can replace them.

    – You are an internationally known and respected researcher and get great reviews for your innovative teaching? Here is a promotion—congrats, you deserve it!

    – You excel every year in your duties as an academic—here is a raise, something more than inflation in fact, you deserve it.

    What do we get instead?

    – We never gave you administrative support in the first place and you did fine, so we’ll just cut all you have left now and leave you with a 5:350 admin:researcher ratio in your unit. Oh, and before you spent only a day a week doing administrative paperwork—let’s bump that to two days a week!

    – Who said promotion was an open, transparent process? We only care about journal articles because that’s the only thing that matters in *our* field twenty years ago. Oh, and don’t think that we respect the fact that you are all leaving and getting professorships at higher-ranked universities abroad—it is clear that they simply don’t have the quality standards we do.

    – Oh no, you can’t negotiate your contract. You are paid the exact same as any other academic that is your age and has the same colored hair that you do, regardless of field, background, expertise, etc. Oh, and by the way, if you are at the top of the union pay scale, then no raise for you… ever. And let’s not bother giving you more than, say, two cost-of-living raises in five years. Who cares if the relative value of your salary when compared to the cost-of-living is 40% smaller now than it was when you *started your job*.


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