Balancing teaching and research

On my first day as a Lecturer in a particular Dublin university in October 1980, I was called to the office of my Head of Department, Professor Charles McCarthy, and he gave me the following advice which stayed with me throughout my professional life. The only way to have a satisfying and successful academic career, he suggested, was to be both a passionate teacher and a dedicated researcher. ‘Go and teach your students as if the country’s future depended on it – which it does – and then go and publish as much research as possible. And never lose sight of either of those tasks.’ It was excellent advice.

Of course in those days it was also quite unusual advice. Research had not become the essential academic activity it now is, and I would guess that in my Faculty back then barely a quarter of staff would have been doing anything we would count as research, and the proportion of those whose research output would have made an impact in today’s research assessment culture would have been even smaller. Nowadays it is all different, and research has become a core activity in universities, and individual academic performance in this context is key to a number of things, including career progression.

So has all this gone too far? The Irish Federation of University Teachers (IFUT) think so. In their submission to the steering group undertaking the higher education strategic review, the union suggested the following.

‘The evidence that the teaching role of academics has been undermined is incontrovertible. Academics are increasingly diverted away from the teaching of undergraduates towards the pursuit of research grants and the knowledge economy. There is no doubt that academic teaching benefits from research and we are not arguing for teaching-only academics. However, it is easy to demonstrate how the universities discourage engagement with teaching. This can be seen in the patterns of appointments, the terms of promotion schemes, the rewards and recognition systems. It is made abundantly clear to young staff that teaching is a necessary but somewhat irrelevant activity: not worthy of investment. Older staff, with a commitment to teaching, find themselves increasingly harassed for a failure to join the new world of high level research. Naturally, this view will never appear in an official document from any university. However, we work in the universities and we know.’

I would have to say that while there are issues raised in this extract that merit attention, the argument is over-stated to an extent that weakens its impact. I do not believe that any university officer (including a Department Head) has ever suggested to a young lecturer that teaching is ‘irrelevant’, or ‘not worthy of investment’. Such advice if given would not only be objectionable but also extremely silly, as teaching is crucial to a university’s funding and this is well recognised. I imagine that ‘older’ staff do get reminded (where that is necessary) of the importance of research as part of the portfolio of academic activities, and this will be done not least because all the empirical evidence suggests that, in the overwhelming majority of cases, good researchers are good teachers in higher education. Encouraging those whose careers may have begun before there were as many expectations regarding research is important not least as a way of raising the game when it comes to teaching.

But for all that, it is right to ask whether we always get the balance right. In particular, we need to ask whether we always manage to hold on successfully to what I regard as a critical principle of academic life: that all academics should be teachers and researchers, and that neither activity should be taking place in a ghetto untouched by the other. The academic vocation is about scholarship, which involves the discovery, critical assessment and dissemination of knowledge. Separating these aspects is hugely undesirable.

It will probably always be the case that there will be some – post-docs, for example, or teaching assistants – who will typically at the start of their careers for a while focus on one aspect only. But for those who become lecturers and who enter upon the full-time academic career, there should be no doubt that they should be both teachers and researchers, and they should allow each of these activities to fertilise the other. Universities in turn should organise themselvcs accordingly, so as to ensure that the balance of teaching and research is recognised and protected; NUI Galway, for example, have adopted a learning, teaching and assessment strategy which is interesting in this context. Perhaps the trickiest issue to get right here is how to reward and recognise teaching excellence in a way that encourages academics to plan their teaching as a component of career development and promotion. Some universities have put significant effort into addressing this.

Not every academic needs to pursue teaching and research in exactly equal measure, but every academic should do some of each. I still believe that the advice I was given as I began my career was correct.

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9 Comments on “Balancing teaching and research”

  1. Wendymr Says:

    Oh, come on – you know as well as I do that it’s rarely as blatant as an actual instruction to concentrate on research, or a statement that teaching is irrelevant. The message is subtly delivered, but present all the same. The praise and overt recognition of the colleague who brings in the research grant or gets a paper in a prestigious journal, while the other colleague who receives the highest ratings for teaching barely gets any acknowledgement. Putting a junior academic in charge of the undergraduate programme, while management of research programmes is fought over. Performance appraisals where teaching achievements or plans are glossed over in about two minutes, while the rest of the hour is devoted to discussion of research. Refusal even to consider recommending someone for promotion because his/her ‘research profile doesn’t justify it’ despite his/her clear ability to demonstrate excellence in teaching and administration. It happens all the time.

    When those kinds of messages are sent all the time, of course younger academics are going to believe that teaching is less important and that the only thing of value is research. Do all your heads of department sit down with their academic staff members every year and ask about their plans for innovation in teaching, new teaching methods they plan to adopt and how they intend to improve the learning experience for students – with the same seriousness they discuss research plans? If you can honestly tell me that this is the case, I’ll withdraw my objection 🙂

    • Wendy, I don’t think that your description is accurate at all! We now spend a lot of time promoting and celebrating teaching, handing out high profile annual teaching awards, offering all sorts of teaching-related training, fine-tuning the teaching element in promotions programmes, supporting staff in developing teaching portfolios, and so forth. This is strongly supported by Heads. Nor do I think that we are unusual.

  2. Donal_C Says:

    Having interviewed at schools worldwide in the last months, I noted that schools advertise their low teaching loads to attract faculty. Ironically, the sole school that claimed to rate teaching more highly than research in the tenure evaluation process had an aggressive incentive system to remunerate faculty for publications in top-tier journals. Even without such a formalized incentive system, the career incentives are geared to favor research because publications are ultimately more mobile than teaching evaluations.
    In the end, I selected one of the few schools that require both research and teaching performance. My reasoning is less the symbiosis of research and teaching, than the importance of student quality and interaction for general intellectual stimulation. I’ve realized that, in any given school, faculty profiles change more quickly than student quality.

  3. Jilly Says:

    It seems to me that this discussion can’t be had in a useful way without considering the third leg on this stool: administration. I, like most other academics I know, have little if any problem with the balance between teaching and research. They are compatible at a high level, and are in both cases what we tend to be both trained for and passionate about.

    The problem area is administration. It is endless, often pointless, and is in many ways incompatible with either teaching or research. I’m not talking about simple and necessary things like maintaining student records, I’m talking about participation in yet another ‘review’ of some kind, or some pointless ‘seminar’ with an outside ‘expert’ (sorry for all the inverted commas, but really), which takes up nearly all day. And at the end of that day, during which you’ve been away from your office, you get back to your computer to find 50 emails. That’s the kind of thing which is problematic, and which seriously undermines both teaching and research. If I’ve got to choose between answering those 50 emails, or reading an article which would inform my teaching and/or research, I’ve got to choose the emails, because they’ll just multiply if I ignore them even for 24 hours. So day-by-day, we read less, write less, and administer more. It’s a creeping process which most of us don’t spot for a while, but it has very real effects.

    • Jilly, I suppose it depends on how you define ‘administration’. Funnily enough I never had that much of a problem with the things you object to, while I hated the things you accept. As universities are pressed from both outside and inside to prioritise academic over administrative appointments (for understandable reasons), administrative pressures build on academics because we simply don’t have the admin staff. For example, the Finance Office of my last university – the University of Hull, which is about the same size as DCU – employed more staff than the entire administration of DCU. That has consequences.

      As for reviews and seminars, these are necessary tools (but usually entirely voluntary ones) that allow us to learn about how things are done wand what ideas are pursued elsewhere. I can’t see how that’s a bad thing!

      • Vincent Says:

        Yes, but while you are holding up Hull, there is nothing more certain than your staffing levels are being held up to prove the something else.
        On your main point and from the outside, it seems that it is for the Good of the person to publish, it gives them flexibility to move.

      • Jilly Says:

        I’m intrigued to know what are the things which I accept but which you hated?

        As for the seminars, many of them consist of consultants (I’m always dying to ask how much they’re being paid) who spend a long, long time explaining simple information as slowly as possible, often one assumes in order to spin out their gig into a full day’s billing. Most of this could be condensed into a short document which we could just read in our offices. Very little of it is rocket science, and most academics are quite good at absorbing written information. And if I hear the phrase ‘let’s workshop this for a while’ one more time…

  4. cormac Says:

    Jill: couldn’t agree more, my own bugbear. both teaching and ressearch are their own reward, but admin? also it seems to be farmed out to lecturers more and more

  5. San Says:

    Hi, I am not sure if this is still monitored (or opened) after 3 years, but i just saw it and wanted to mention my points. I am also in favour of “teaching and research”, without any doubt. The efforts of research are reflected in teaching any topic, in general and computer science, in particular. However, I have a point to make at this point. As I am still working as postdoc and soon will be taking a faculty position, I have not much idea about universities or departments’ policy to make best use of “teaching and research”. For example, both of these activities require time and if the area of research and topics that one faculty is teaching are similar/related, he/she can be more comfortable and will have no problem of compromising the quality of one over the other. For example, in computer science, if one faculty does research in programming language and also given the subject of programming language to teach, I think he will be teaching happily and nicely of course, unless he is really a bad teacher in general!!). On the other hand, if the same faculty is given each semester a different subject (e.g. networking, machine learning etc.), he will be forced to compromise the quality as he has to prepare separately for such topics each time. So, in my opinion, research and teaching will go together and will be fruitful under such an environment. however, as i said earlier, I yet to take a faculty position, I am not sure if this is how it is done already? I would like to know others opinion.

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