The false dichotomy of teaching and research
I’m teaching two classes this quarter, which is more than usual. One is a breezy graduate course on the past, present, and future of user interface technology, with 42 outstanding masters students learning to be literate about how we talk to computers. The other is an undergraduate course on big ideas about information, with 208 freshman, sophomores, and juniors learning about the power and perils of information. I love nearly every moment of both, for the deep immersion into interaction, data, and society, and the fleeting relationships the 250 wandering minds I’m trying to guide.
While I love teaching, it hasn’t left much time for research. I spent the entirely of every Tuesday and Thursday preparing, teaching, grading, and managing teaching assistants. That leaves Monday and Wednesday for research (and Friday for administration, committees, and service). This isn’t a lot of time to do 50% of my job. But I’m getting by, developing a grant proposal, advising my doctoral students, making discoveries, and publishing. But I still spend a good portion of Tuesdays and Thursdays thinking about all of the research I’m not doing.
This is a common challenge amongst tenure-track professors, especially my pre-tenure colleagues. They know they will be judged more on their research than their teaching at research universities like mine. But giving time to research over teaching also leads to very real, and sometimes disheartening moments of guilt in the classroom. I’ve walked into lectures knowing I wasn’t prepared; I’ve seen confusion wash over a sea of 200 faces; I’ve felt the sting a failed classroom activity that might have only confused my students rather than enlightening them. And every time, I could have avoided it by spending less time on research.
This dichotomy between teaching and research is at the core of a lot of problems in higher education. It leads to poorer teaching. Poorer teaching leads to less learning. Less learning leads to frustration amongst students. Students graduate and see little value to their class time at college. And it’s not just students. I’ve had many full-time teachers, in K-12 and higher education, belittle and devalue research in conversation with me, not knowing that I’m also a researcher. And of course, tenure-track faculty highly engaged in research devalue teaching too, with phrases like I “have” to teach, or I’m “just” teaching, or actions like senior faculty spending 50 minutes of a tenure and promotion decision on a research record, then 5 minutes on teaching.
But my teaching this quarter has made me wonder if the separation between research and teaching is more of an accident of history than anything essential. Splitting my days between teaching and research, rather than interleaving them, has started to reveal their similarities and synergies.
First, great research requires great teaching. Research requires more than teaching, of course, but in my view, research writing, research presentations, and other forms of research dissemination are all teaching, and all essential to research. Every scholar knows that the most incredible insight or discovery means nothing if it can’t be motivated, contextualized, explained, examined, and defended against skeptical peers. We just tend to do this teaching in the form of written documents or presentations with peers rather than classrooms full of learners. Does a difference in form and audience really make the teaching in research not teaching? I think not.
Second, great teaching requires great research. When I’m really motivated to teach well, summarizing the recorded knowledge and mastery of pedagogy is insufficient. It takes meaningful intellectual work to synthesize what we know in a way that connects with a group of learners with diverse prior knowledge. And this synthesis often raises questions that have no answers. In my user interface class, for example, it isn’t enough for me to just describe the past, present, and future of interfaces. I need a narrative around those ideas, a theoretical and practical account of history, and how it’s connected to what comes next. And I need a narrative that conceptualizes it in a way that connects with a group of young people from across the globe, fascinated by human-computer interaction, but only familiar with interfaces as users, not designers. Inventing that synthesis took hundreds of hours of reading, ideating, writing, and refinement. And engaging students in that narrative reveals new questions and new ideas that we have no answers to. Making this narrative felt much like writing a comprehensive literature review, and discussing it with my peers. The only difference is that its not peer-reviewed, its not in PDF format, and its for people who are mostly learning from me (though they teach me plenty as well).
This overlap between research and teaching is fundamentally about understanding. Both endeavors aim for understanding, and often about the same phenomena. They just target different groups and different levels of detail. For instance, I’ve been doing some research with one of my students lately about machine learning literacy as it relates to advocacy. Our work is highly focused, highly scientific, and will help machine learning and information literacy educators develop understanding about advocacy in a world of AI. But at the exact same time, I’m teaching about data literacy in my big ideas class for the exact same purpose: I’m searching for ways of explaining how machine learning relates to the lives of the hundreds of AI-obessed youth in my class. Both my teaching and my research are seeking the same understanding (how to explain ML), and developing the same understanding in others. I’m just arriving at that understanding through two different activities and with different audiences.
Of course, none of this overlap means that my teaching helps my research or vice versa. But that’s more because the activities involved in modern research and teaching involve so many things other than seeking understanding. I spend a lot of my research days complying with human subjects regulations, seeking funding, recruiting doctoral students, evaluating doctoral students, and managing peer review. And I spent a lot of my teaching days managing teaching assistants, grading, communicating classroom expectations, walking to and from classrooms. Few of these activities are at the heart of seeking understanding, and so the overlap in practice is minimal.
But this lack of overlap isn’t essential. We just happen to have evolved research universities in a way that has pushed research and teaching ever further away from each other. Evaluating them separately creates a hierarchy between them. Curricula constrain what we teach, forcing a divide between what we investigate in research and what we teach in classrooms. The separation of the university from the world means that the very phenomena we want to observe and the new media we want to invent require us to leave, while placing students in abstracted classroom settings, separate from those phenomena and our investigation of them.
I can imagine a version of higher education that wouldn’t create these separations. It looks a lot like doctoral education. Professors would ask questions and try to answer them, as we do. Students would help out and learn along the way. To be productive helpers, they might need to read a lot independently, as doctoral students do, and ask us questions about that reading, to help make sense of it. Eventually those students would start asking novel questions, and become expert enough to not need the professors any more. Rather than separating students into ranks like undergraduates, masters students, and doctoral students, I could imagine just having students, all on their own journeys, coming to me to quench their thirst for knowledge, and leaving when they were satisfied. This early vestige of the first universities, still somewhat intact in the form of modern doctoral education, is still the purest form of collective scholarship, and one that demonstrates how research and teaching are naturally inseparable.
Of course, entangling teaching and research like this doesn’t scale. If I weren’t teaching classes, I could probably support 25–30 students in this way. But not 250. The separation of research and teaching is therefore more a by product of an economic demand for learning at scale, and some industrialized notions of how to organize this learning at scale. It’s not because research and teaching are truly different endeavors. Academia let the thirst for knowledge reshape it.
While we’re unlikely to ever return to a time where research and teaching are reunited, we can all remember that they are in their essence, synergistic and highly overlapping activities. We need the practical synthetic knowledge that teaching-track faculty produce every day to help build a bridge between discovery and understanding. And we need the discoveries that tenure-track faculty produce to have anything to share. Perhaps the modern way to bring these two endeavors back together is to incentivize partnerships between these two roles. Both create explanations of the world that help the world understand it. Let’s find ways to do it together.