Reflective Practice

Research and Teaching: Why Integrate Them?

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By Ana Flávia Bádue

From the moment I began teaching I have heard people argue that teaching and research are irreconcilable. Either teaching is a burden to those who want to invest their time in research, or teaching is a reprieve from research, a refreshing moment but  one entirely separate  from graduate school requirements. However, it is not just a coincidence that college instructors are also PhDs; in fact, the modern university was founded on the interconnection of teaching and research.

Starting in the 17th century in Europe, universities began to associate research and teaching in multiple ways: through disciplinary specialization, the transformation of the academic staff into instructors who research, and the introduction of research based knowledge in the curriculum. (For those interested in reading more about the emergence of the Western university, I’d recommend the sources in the brief bibliography below.) The scenario changed by the 20th century, when public and private universities increased investments in research at the expense of teaching. The consequence of attaching  grants, funding, and prestige to research is that the faculty are more inclined to devote  their time and resources to research, to the detriment of teaching—and so are the institutions.

In this new context, should we abandon the nexus between teaching and research? How can we make teaching and research complementary? I personally have had good experiences in connecting my teaching with my research, and I’m not alone.  Below are some of the reasons to integrate  research and teaching, and a summary of some of the benefits for students and instructors.

Improved student learning

Research has shown that when undergraduate students are exposed to research environments, topics or methodologies, they  develop capacity for independent learning and critical thinking; they also become more satisfied and motivated . In my courses, I introduce students  to cutting-edge research in my discipline, and I emphasize how research debates resonate with broader discussions the students will find in their professional and personal lives. I’ve found that a research-based approach to instruction encourages students to take a critical approach to material, rather than passively accept facts.

Aside from promoting critical thinking, talking about research-based knowledge in class generates a sense of excitement among the students and expands their horizons regarding their own actions. In my classes, I usually introduce some of my difficulties with my own research to show them the “backstage” of knowledge production. Such disclosures help students feel they can also undertake complex intellectual tasks, instead of just reproducing knowledge that was “delivered” to them.

Finally, research activities also promote a deeper learning experience. I teach Introduction to Anthropology at a college whose strength is accounting, business and economics. Most of my students major in these fields, and anthropology seems to be very distant to their interests. As my research focuses on financialization of farmland in Brazil, I usually use my empirical cases to explain how social and cultural relations are enmeshed in economic decisions, like financial investments. Apart from using existing research as “examples” in class, I also invite the students to have a short research experience, so that they engage with the contents of the course in a more profound and long-lasting way. Specifically, I ask them to do an ethnographic observation of a social setting they are familiar with, and they have to use some of the readings assigned in the course to denaturalize the environment they take for granted. In their final assignment, they have to write about what they learned from this experience, and they usually state that they that anthropology helped them to understand people around them in different ways.  Some highlight inequalities that went unperceived before, while others state that they can understand individual actions as part of broader social dynamics. Therefore, research helps them to better grasp the content and enhances their learning experience.

Improvement of instructors’ research

Speaking about my research to undergrads has also had many positive outcomes for me as an instructor. I have to find ways to clarify my own thoughts, which gives me the opportunity to practice speaking to a broader audience about my academic field. Moreover, as I assign journal articles and books, I usually give an introduction in class about the context of the piece the students read. Preparing this introduction is a way of mapping the big picture into which the teacher’s specific research specialization fits. Even if you work with other sources of material, you can prepare ahead a brief summary of the context in which your class is inserted.

Mapping the big picture can also elucidate gaps in the scholarship which you are working, and can bring you insights to your next publication. To find these gaps and to discover new ways of thinking, I like to think of my students as intellectual peers with whom I can dialogue. Then I take my students’ questions as suggestions to think further. Some may even point in promising new directions. If you listen carefully to your students’ questions, they will probably lead to useful insights.

If research and teaching often seem to be more and more distant nowadays, it does not mean that they should be. Both these activities were initially intertwined because they share the pursuit of knowledge, and common values, such as rationality and curiosity. Even if the institution in which you teach is not attuned to this discussion, you can use your classroom as a space to put teaching and research together.

Ana Flávia Bádue is a doctoral student in Cultural Anthropology at the Graduate Center. She teaches Introduction to Cultural Anthropology at Baruch.

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