WTF is the teaching-research nexus? Or, how my teaching load supports my research

Yesterday I was giving a short talk to a group of early career researchers doing a two day workshop. I have good memories of doing the same workshop when I first began at my current workplace. I remember folks coming in and speaking to us and how actually, a couple of ideas I got from those talks shaped my career decisions and my work strategies. So I was pretty excited to come in and return the favour. The topic I was assigned however, was ‘the teaching-research nexus’. The challenge of speaking to a topic of that breadth is that to me, that pretty much describes our entire jobs as academics. So it was a bit overwhelming to even think about what was worth sharing to a bunch of a newbies from diverse disciplines and backgrounds. The more I thought about it, the less I was able to come up with anything useful to say. The more I thought about it, the less I was able to even identify what we even mean by ‘teaching-research nexus’.

Fortunately, the organisers were not relying on me coming up with this, and attached a helpful document from Melbourne University authored by Gabrielle Baldwin. She writes:

According to particular contexts, academic staff build the teaching-research nexus through approaches that include:

– drawing on personal research in designing and teaching courses;

– placing the latest research in the field within its historical context in classroom teaching;

– designing learning activities around contemporary research issues;

– teaching research methods, techniques and skills explicitly within subjects;

– building small-scale research activities into undergraduate assignments;

– involving students in departmental research projects;

– encouraging students to feel part of the research culture of departments;

– infusing teaching with the values of researchers; and

– conducting and drawing on research into student learning to make evidence-based decisions about teaching.

Baldwin, 2005

I picked a couple of things here to reflect on, such as drawing on pedagogical research to do co-constructed assessment rubrics in class (evidence-based decisions about teaching), and a set of films I made with PhD students to use in my undergraduate teaching (drawing on personal research in designing and teaching courses). But I think what is missing here is the way in which teaching is important for research, and indeed, the two cannot be separated easily.

My experience is that teaching gives me a chance to develop an argument and a narrative in relation to published literature (other people’s work) that is then useful in planning, conducting, writing up and reflecting on my own research. Indeed, some teaching I was assigned and had to get up to speed on without much background actually has fundamentally shaped my research projects.

Where teaching informs research

I have been fortunate enough to teach the same three courses for between 5 and 8 years. Obviously, if your job is making you change teaching portfolios frequently, just getting through the semester is your priority, and my first 3 years were more like this. But in the last 8 years, I have had some stability in developing my teaching portfolio, which has really helped. Our programme generally tries to give each person a mix of team taught large classes (teaching a module usually), sole taught medium classes (2nd or 3rd year), and co-taught small postgraduate classes (taught with one other person in our area).

For module based team teaching, I develop 6-9 lectures to be delivered within a course. My last 8 years have involved modules in an introductory human geography course focusing on introducing ideas of place. When I arrived, another staff member was teaching economic geography (my first specialty), so I offered to develop a module on political geography. What this meant was that I had to develop an overview of a second subdiscipline, and find my place and connection to it in a meaningful way. Teaching a short module (initially only 6 lectures for first year students) gave me space to develop this. Over time, I was able to get a sense of the subdiscipline and started keeping up with it and even ventured into publishing a little in that field. But the main teaching-research nexus here was to identify and situate my research alongside a different field, which has deepened the quality of my work overall.

For sole taught classes, I started off with a course already on the books, and over two years developed a proposal for a new course based on my experiments in teaching that course within the bounds of someone else’s learning outcomes. The redeveloped course was designed in conjunction with the overall curriculum in geography, but also with an eye to my own research specialty, diverse and community economies. In the course, I develop an extended argument, but carefully laying the ground work for why we might need to rethink development (it’s called Rethinking Development) in the context of the body of work I am critical of, then work carefully with students to examine approaches that address some of the deficiencies we have identified earlier in the course. This course gave me the opportunity to research my entire sub-subdiscipline of diverse economies and community economies, and become familiar with the work being done in that field all over the world. When JK Gibson-Graham was invited to write The Handbook of Diverse Economies, my overview work in this course was one of the reasons I was invited to co-edit the book, which we designed with classes such as mine in mind. Teaching informed one of my biggest research achievements to date.

For postgraduate co-taught classes, I use these as a way of guiding my reading into newer fields at the borders of my areas of expertise. Most recently, I use my half of the course to set and discuss readings in the area of wellbeing and commoning, which has helped me get on top of some emerging areas of research. I particularly focus on assigning new work in the field, and change the set of readings every two years or so. While I need to be mindful of the different programmes the students are coming from (not all geography), I can also model the research process and use the discussion to develop my own ideas in emerging areas. These courses are very low tech: no powerpoints, lots of structured reading and discussion. Recently, I had set the readings in such a way as to make an argument I was making in a paper I was writing and something funny happened. One student had basically picked up on the overall argument of the course and written an essay basically mirroring the article I had just completed (still under review), using the same set of readings. The point is, the oral and slow nature of the course gives time to develop an argument with a set of readings — teaching informs research.

Teaching films have been the basis for other research outputs, or the beginning of research relationships. Screenshot from Hope Frustrated, co-produced with SM Waliuzzaman, 2020.

This is the same process that enabled me to make some teaching videos into a variety of co-authored articles. For example, a video on commoning in Christchurch has only had 31 views outside the classroom, but it became the basis for an article with more views and citations. It was also the foundation for a research grant application and the testing ground for a fruitful ongoing collaboration with my colleague Gradon Diprose and community partners in Christchurch such as Life in Vacant Spaces. A teaching film on rotating finance with my PhD student Ririn Haryani was the basis for a book chapter in the forthcoming book Community Economies in the Global South. In all these examples, teaching and research are intertwined in deeply important ways.

So to answer the question in the title — what actually is the teaching-research nexus? The nexus is of course like the ‘throwntogetherness’ concept this blog is based on. It is a bunch of complex ties that are not one directional. Teaching informs research informs teaching ad infinitum. I’ve pulled out a couple here that are meaningful for me in my particular field– what about you? How does this work in other disciplines?

2 thoughts on “WTF is the teaching-research nexus? Or, how my teaching load supports my research

Add yours

  1. I like the concept, teaching informs research and research informs teaching. I apply this to my situation, managing a research programme for the wine industry in a different way where industry informs research and research informs industry. its through this “throwntogetherness”we make real gains in better ways to manage vineyards and achieve our goals

    Liked by 1 person

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