It's Not a Zero-Sum Game

July 03, 2008

"How many classes do you teach every academic year?" I wish I had a dollar for every time I have been asked that question.

Historically, professors at my teaching-intensive university have not had a significant presence at major scholarly conferences in the sciences. Whenever I present at a conference in my field (neuroscience), most of the attendees I encounter know nothing about where I work and pepper me with questions, like: How many full-time students are there? What are your laboratories like? And, of course, What is your teaching load?

My answer to that last question — six courses a year, typically — is often met with shock and disbelief. Colleagues at Research I universities seem stunned at the thought of teaching three classes a semester — without graduate teaching assistants, no less! How do you make any progress on your research?, they ask. I usually offer some vague, nonconfrontational reply, "Over time, I've learned to multitask."

In truth, I find it interesting that so many academics view undergraduate teaching as an impediment to research. Much has been written and said invalidating that opinion, and my experience is that extensive undergraduate teaching may, in some ways, help scholarly progress rather than hinder it. Many academics at major research universities seem unaware that the overall faculty workload at a small, teaching-centered institution is no more or less than that of a position at a Research I campus — it's simply different.

At research institutions, a significant portion of faculty time is spent preparing and submitting grant proposals, managing the operations of a sizable laboratory, and overseeing graduate students and postdoctoral researchers. Those commitments leave scientists with little time to engage directly in hands-on research. Scholarly progress in large-lab environments is often made primarily by graduate students, postdocs, and research associates.

By comparison, I spend most of my time teaching undergraduate classes, advising students, and training student researchers in my modest and institutionally supported lab. By choosing to work at an undergraduate-centered institution, I have made a choice regarding the sort of work I wish to primarily engage in, but that decision has had little effect on the amount of time I have to dedicate exclusively to my own research.

The reality of modern academe is that, no matter what your institutional affiliation, the time you can devote to research is being squeezed by multiple competing demands. No simple solution to that problem exists for any of us. But I have found that rethinking the nature of our professional commitments, such that teaching activities bleed into research ones (and vice versa), can be an effective way to reduce the time crunch. Academics describe their workload of scholarship, teaching, and service as if those were entirely separate entities. In reality, the line between teaching and research is usually much fuzzier.

For example, several undergraduate research assistants work in my lab, more or less independently, on facets of my research program. My scholarly endeavors are not separate from those of the students; they are truly one and the same. In that scenario, where does my teaching and mentorship end and my scholarship begin?

Similarly, when I spend time catching up on the literature, am I reading to inform my research or preparing for the classes I teach? Of course, it is both.

By capitalizing on that synergy, I can "make" time by allowing different professional activities to fundamentally inform and enrich each other. And that is the key to maintaining an active research program that compliments a heavy teaching load.

I have had many "Eureka!" insights about my scholarship that sprouted directly from class activities or discussions with undergraduates. Because they are often unfamiliar with the methods and dominant paradigms in a field, undergraduates unknowingly become excellent inquisitors of scholarship. Their insightful questions and comments force me to think about theories and issues in my field in new and creative ways, which, in turn, have led me to interesting and unexplored research questions.

In short, teaching loads and research productivity are not part of a zero-sum game, and increasing one does not, by necessity, decrease the other. The historical demarcation between time spent on pedagogy and time spent on research is a false distinction, one that we would be wise to discard.

I have found the beneficial relationship between scholarly productivity and a moderately heavy undergraduate teaching load to be especially notable in the way it nurtures three specific professional competencies that are critical for conference presentations in the sciences:

Developing your presentation skills. Anyone who has attended an academic conference can share horror stories of presentations that were complete wrecks. All too frequently, talks decompose into disorganized and boring messes that are read straight off of a set of uninspired PowerPoint slides. That is a telltale sign that a presenter does not possess extensive experience teaching undergraduates.

I could never (nor should I) get away with such poor presentation skills in my classes. Extensive practice in successfully conveying information to undergraduates may be the key factor in giving an organized conference talk that grabs the audience's attention and has a clear point.

Every undergraduate course you teach provides a challenge in how to present complex information in a straightforward and concise way to an intelligent (but often uninformed) audience. Look no further than prominent researchers who are engaging speakers but are also dedicated to undergraduate teaching (such as Caltech's Christof Koch, a professor of biology and engineering) to observe that link.

Responding appropriately to odd questions. The Q&A portion of a conference presentation can, and often does, go horribly wrong. Someone in the audience will ask an uninformed, illogical, or offensive question, and that query will send the presenter into a mode of defense or extreme offense. Either way, the results are unpleasant to behold.

As anyone with extensive teaching experience knows, undergraduates are particularly adept at asking peculiar and maddening questions. One of the great traits of a seasoned undergraduate teacher is the ability to defuse those questions and attempt to answer or redirect them with tact and professionalism.

It would seem that one's professional colleagues are at least as capable (and perhaps more so!) as undergraduate students in asking questions that are problematic and unsettling. Thus, extensive experience dealing with those awkward moments in the undergraduate classroom can make a very positive contribution toward handling bizarre queries during Q&A sessions at a conference.

Making connections across fields. It is sometimes the case that accomplished and widely respected researchers possess a tremendous depth of knowledge in a specific subfield but lack a broad understanding of their discipline. Those scholars may struggle to link their research meaningfully to work in other academic disciplines.

But if you have extensive experience teaching introductory or survey courses, you are better equipped to make connections with research from outside your specific subfield. You also are more readily able to ask a conference presenter good questions.

The popular notion that academic positions should be described by some formula — X percent teaching, Y percent research activities, and Z percent service — ought to be abandoned in favor of a unified teacher-scholar model that recognizes the important contributions that scholarly work makes to pedagogy, as well as the impact that undergraduate teaching can have on research.

I am fortunate that my teaching load still allows some dedicated time for research. That may not be the case at institutions with teaching loads of seven or more courses in a single academic year. Teaching loads of that magnitude often pass a tipping point for most faculty members (myself included). With that many courses, there simply are not enough hours in the day to conduct classes, grade papers, etc., and still have time left for research.

But a moderately heavy load of undergraduate teaching commitments — five or six courses a year — should not be considered a hindrance to scholarly performance. Instead, the relationship between scholarship and pedagogy should be re-envisioned to account for the very real benefits conferred upon research skills and progress by teaching.

Mathew H. Gendle is an assistant professor of psychology at Elon University, in North Carolina.