Thursday, May 7, 2015

Teaching and Research: A Dichotomy?

Adam Dynes

Every minute you spend on teaching is time away from research. You’re either running an experiment or you’re prepping for class. You can’t do both.

While true – I can’t literally work on writing up my dissertation while at the same time grade student assignments – I hope, at the very least, to show how the teaching vs. research dichotomy isn’t as definitive as we often assume.

First, as teachers we can design courses that engage students in producing original research. Although most of us, as grad students, have limited control over the content and structure of the courses we teach, many of us will be at the helm sooner than we realize.

I’m certainly under no illusion that it’s easy to co-author with undergraduates – they have lots of other time commitments, they’re just learning research designs and methods, and they’ll soon graduate by the time that they do get a handle on these things. 

But there are benefits. As Herrick, Matthias, and Nielson argue in an article on this very topic, research collaborations with undergraduates can lead to more creative research ideas since...

“innovation tends to emerge from minds that are in key senses naive to the fields they are revolutionizing (Csikszentmihalyi 1996; Simonton 1999). Undergraduates, who are by definition outsiders, can sometimes make those new connections with extraordinary speed, which can lead to fresh insights that might evade a professor thoroughly socialized in conventional wisdom.”

Since being “meta” is all the rage these days, I should point out that Herrick and Matthias were undergrad co-authors with Nielson. Also, if the idea of bringing research into your classroom is of interest to you, I would encourage you to check out the issue of the journal that published their article, as it features an entire symposium on involving undergraduates in research.

But what does this mean for you now? You’re probably not designing your own courses quite yet. So isn’t the dichotomy between research and teaching just as strong as ever?

Certainly not! This is because many of the things you do as a teacher will also improve your skill sets as a researcher.

Both teaching and research are about communicating ideas. It doesn’t matter how important your research discovery is if you can’t convey its importance to others.

In teaching, we hone that skill. It’s all about public speaking and presentation skills, and finding ways to interest others in specific research projects. When you give your job talk, the audience will likely include faculty members who don’t know much about your specific research agenda, and like the undergrads in your courses, you’ll have to find a way to rope them in. Teaching also provides us the opportunity to develop our own ideas and vet them with an audience.

One of my favorite works in political science, and one that was quite influential on my dissertation, is a book by Douglas Arnold called the The Logic of Congressional Action. A key concept from the book is the idea that policymakers’ actions and their effects on policy outcomes must be “traceable” in order for voters to reward and punish them.

At a conference I attended a few years ago, Arnold discussed how he developed this concept and fleshed out its implications for legislative behavior. And, as you might have guessed by now, it came directly from his undergraduate teaching. 

It was an idea that he began to articulate in an undergrad course on Congress to help explain the behavior of members of Congress to his students. In discussing how he developed his theory, Arnold specifically mentioned that it started off as just a conjecture, but over the years of teaching the course, he naturally developed it into a broader theory and then realized it “had legs.”

To sum, there are certainly tradeoffs between teaching and research. But I hope that I have moved the Venn diagram in your mind from this:


To this:


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