Celia Popovic – Bridging the teaching /research divide

Photo of Celia Popovic

Celia Popovic, Guest blogger
The launch this month of a new teaching and learning site on York University’s website has prompted a flurry of emails from colleagues within and beyond the university commenting on the prominence we have given to teaching. As we all know, websites are prime real estate in the virtual world and there are competing demands regarding what to privilege. York has always prided itself on its commitment to teaching but this is not a message that has always been received as loudly or clearly as we would like. The decision to use valuable website space was therefore taken to address this lacuna.
The Office of the AVP Teaching and Learning, led by Professor Sue Vail, developed the site with students and their parents in mind. This is the external face of the university.
The response to the launch has given me pause for thought. What do we value most in universities? Is it ground-breaking research or is it high quality teaching? I know the answer is both, of course, but does everyone agree?
It occurs to me that the answer to this depends on who you ask. Students and their professors may have different answers.  Are students, and in particular, prospective students, more likely to be interested in the quality of the teaching than the international ranking of their professors’ research? Most students arrive directly from high school, where as far as they are concerned, their teachers have just one function – to teach them. Of course, professors have multiple duties that include but are not restricted to teaching. However students rarely see the full spectrum of their professors’ professional lives — an amalgam of teaching, research and service.
So I would like to advocate that as a community we take more time to share our rounded lives with our students. As Mick Healey and Alan Jenkins have long been arguing, there are many ways in which we can bridge the teaching-research divide.  Research and teaching can be brought together in several ways; I’d like to look at four of them:
Using research in the classroom – Some professors regard the content of their teaching and the content of their research as completely separate entities. However others are masters at using examples from their own research or research from the cutting edge of the discipline to bring their teaching to life. Students need to know the basics of a discipline, but they also want to be enthused by what is happening now.
Teaching research skills from the earliest stage – Do we really have to wait for students to sign up for a master’s to find out how to read statistics, or conduct a focus group, for example? In some programs, research skills are embedded into learning as early as the first year. We can reduce the mystery surrounding professors’ activities when they aren’t in the lecture theatre or classroom if students are initiated into these practices at an early stage.
Researching teaching – There is a huge and growing body of knowledge on best practices in teaching and yet so many of us rely on anecdote and personal experience when it comes to designing our teaching – practices that  would appall us if they were used in our disciplines
Students conducting research projects – Many students regard themselves as consumers of research, a view possibly shared by most of their professors. But other professors have had success in enabling students to be producers of research. At York, for example, we have an annual undergraduate research fair to celebrate this activity, organized by the libraries. I would love to see this approach taken in many more courses and programs.
So yes, York’s teaching and learning site does place an emphasis on the value of teaching– but it does not indicate a change in the balance of our activities. We aren’t allocating more time to one and less to the other; the pie just got bigger.
Celia Popovic is director of the Teaching Commons at York University.​
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