Integrating Teaching and Research

May 5, 2006

From personal experience, it is clear to me that I have been happier when the teaching aspect of my life has fused seamlessly with the research I do. From the point of view of the teacher-scholar paradigm, this is the ultimate goal. The fusion enhances the quality and satisfaction of both activities – together, they form more than the sum of each part.

Achieving this integration is easier said than done. But there are circumstances that foster this goal. Here are some personal reflections on the conditions that I believe make research and teaching two sides of the same intellectual pursuit, rather than compartments of independent achievement.

  1. Freedom: The more choice that faculty are given in choosing their courses, and processes therein, the better. It is the simple and best way to empower faculty. Too many departments cripple their faculty by having fixed notions of what content should be taught. I believe that teaching content is meaningless, for transmission of facts that are relevant today is a sure way to cripple the student tomorrow. Instead. teaching how to think through the medium of the subject is most important. Faculty that are given the freedom to bring their research into their courses, or at least bring their area of research into alignment with their courses are more likely to teach students to think, because they are allowed to teach on topics where they themselves have spent a lifetime of deep thought.

  2. State of the Art: When teaching and research are integrated, it is much more likely that the classroom experience is current, and state of the art. I have seen faculty that teach the same thing year after year, with almost no changes to their class notes. (They simply go to class with a tattered and beaten manila folder that has seen better days). This can only happen when research is not integrated into teaching. A course that taps into research cannot help but be updated regularly, bringing the benefit of new paradigms and fresh thought to the classroom. Viewed in this manner, research is the life blood of the teaching scholar.

    There are many faculty that have stopped doing quality scholarship or do no research at all. How can they offer the best education to our students? Integrating teaching with research is therefore, to me, an imperative, not a choice.

  3. Idealabs: The classroom is an effective way to seed research. Teaching sparks research ideas. Just last month I was teaching a well-known model to my students when one of them asked me a question about the model that I had never thought of. It was an obvious question, but it had surprisingly been ignored so far in published research. I suggested an answer in class, and conjectured that the answer involved a particular differential equation, which I told my students I might actually be able to solve. I am now working on this problem. Is this integration of teaching and research? – I believe so. There is something fertile about the classroom environment that generates research ideas richer than does quiet, reflective thought. The classroom is an excellent idealab.

  4. Diversification: Teaching research topics that you are interested in but do not have time to take on whole hog right now is a way to avoid shelving them altogether. And of course, we know best what we seek to teach. Suppose you are interested in an area of research sufficiently different from your original training, but you want to make time to learn more and eventually dig into it with all seriousness. There is no way to achieve this without a lot of self-discipline and motivation. However, deciding to teach those topics is an excellent commitment device. It ensures you make the effort to know the material well enough to teach it, which otherwise may have not transpired in the face of other demands on one’s time.
    Here is what happened in my case. There are a slew of topics in quantitative modeling across fields in the business school that I came across over the past three years while reading journals in my field and in related ones. Not having the bandwidth to delve into these, I kept adding them to a file I kept in my computer with brief notes. For the coming year, I put these all together and decided to propose a course comprising a mix of those topics. The course has been approved, and I will be teaching it next Spring. It promises to be an exciting, challenging, yet intellectually invigorating time. Yes, it will be hard learning and teaching at the same time, but integrating my teaching into my “off the beaten track” research goals might just pay off.

  5. Research literacy: I believe that an important goal of faculty should be to expand the level of student literacy in their major subject. This can only be achieved through accessing research as part of course work. One of the advantages of teaching in a business school is that there are two types of journals – academic and practitioner ones. The latter type of journal is quite accessible to students, and indeed, is an important avenue of keeping up to date even after they graduate. So bringing research to them in this format ensures they will be able to learn from it now and long term. Most students do not believe they can access this literature, and its surprising to them when they find they can. In some courses, I even require that the end of term paper be based on readings of academic journals, undertaken to the best of their abilities. Most students say later that reading the research literature was not only a revelation, but also gave them a very different way of thinking than they got from lectures.

  6. Exchanging ideas: A university is nothing but a market place for ideas. Where do new ideas come from if not from research? Therefore, integrating scholarship and teaching is a necessity.

  7. The “You” factor: Much of teaching is about keeping the students’ attention. Talking about one’s own research is an effective way to engage students, for no matter what our priors, they are quite interested in who we are and what we do. Start a sentence in class by saying – “Let me tell you about what I found in this research…” and watch them sit up and listen. Talking research is an effective way of connecting intellectually.

  8. Latent guest speaker: In business schools, bringing in an expert in the field to talk to students is an enriching experience. When there is no expert, talking about new research in the field is an effective alternate medium, if not better. Its like having many experts in the room at one time, whenever needed.

  9. Validation: Teaching validates research. I now realize that my best research was also the easiest to explain in class, including some pretty esoteric mathematical work. We also end up more likely to teach that research we enjoyed most, which also makes it likely to be the research that was better. Which ensures that students get the best of our research work, not the worst.

  10. Closure: I find that an understanding of a subject is never complete unless we convey a “state of the subject” talk at some point. Research is a key component. I usually round out and end the course by talking about the current hot areas of research, as well as what the big open questions are. I also tell my students that they do not need to come only to class to learn more, that an entire body of research awaits them, accessible and full of enrichment. They should go to it now, and even after they are done with school.

Thus, incorporating research in teaching makes good teachers great; it makes great teachers outstanding. There is the old parable that goes – “give a man a fish and he will not starve today, but teach him to fish and he will eat well for ever.” Research in the classroom makes students think, not just today, but for the rest of their lives.