At most major universities in the United States, the advice that junior faculty get from their senior colleagues about the optimal division of effort between research and teaching usually boils down to something like the following: Research is paramount! Put enough effort into your teaching so that (1) students aren’t complaining to the Department Chair and (2) students say they don’t hate the course on the course evaluations, and you’ll be fine.
The truth is that this often directly reflects the weightings given these activities during evaluations for promotion and tenure. What keeps research institutions running are research dollars coming into the institution, and what keeps research dollars flowing in is the research productivity of the faculty. Thus, research productivity becomes paramount, and the incentive structure is constructed to make it so. Consequently, this causes most faculty (and administrators) to see research and teaching as a zero-sum game.
Effort put into teaching is considered effort not put into research. Many design their research programs and structure their teaching in this mindset. However, research and teaching do not have to constitute a zero-sum game. In fact, many of the most creative and productive researchers I have known over the years do not see these two responsibilities of their jobs this way. They see research and teaching as synergistic endeavors that can easily reinforce one another.
Like many of my colleagues, I have always seen research and teaching at a university as completely synergistic activities. I use my teaching activities to learn new things, generate excuses to bone up on things that might be useful for me, and as a venue to test out new ideas about presentation and linkages between ideas. Here, I’d like to lay out a few of the ways that I and others make teaching an integral part of our research.
The most obvious thing to do is to teach an advanced and specialized course in your area of research. This is almost too obvious and can quickly become quite narcissistic. Moreover, it’s not what I’m talking about. Research is about learning things you don’t already know, and you don’t learn anything new by simply recounting to a captive audience what you already know. These courses serve you best when you give a class in some topic you want to learn something about. For example, perhaps you have some idea that you may want to write a grant in some new direction for you. A great way to learn a new area is to teach a seminar in that area to a bunch of motivated and bright undergraduates or graduate students. This type of class gives you the excuses to immerse yourself in the literature of an area and to discuss the ideas, hypotheses, theory and supporting data in that area.
Such direction into new areas does not need to be done only in very advanced courses. I consider myself a community ecologist and evolutionary biologist, and I have taught undergraduate courses in these two broad areas my entire teaching career. I have found germs of ideas for new directions to my research from things I’ve done in both these courses. Most of these new directions come not from things I did in class, but rather in thinking about how to structure the presentations of different topics in the class or how to structure the entire class.
I’ll give two examples to illustrate this, among many I could describe. In teaching speciation, in our sophomore level evolution, I began to struggle with our concepts of species definitions. Almost all species definitions are predicated on the idea that a scientist is determining what a species is. In other words, almost every species definition is based on a different type of data to be collected on the species. In thinking about this and how to present it to the students in class, I struck on the idea that the only criteria that were relevant were those used by the males and females of those species to determine who they considered to be conspecifics and heterospecifics. Let the species themselves tell us where the species breaks are. This led to my research on the evolution of mating structures (e.g., see McPeek et al. 2008 and McPeek et al. 2011).
In thinking through how to structure my course in community ecology, I systematized for myself an entire field of relationships. Community ecology can be a very nebulous and confusing discipline because there are few organizing principles and a bewildering array of different types of species interaction and community types. There’s resource competition, predator-prey relationships, trophic relationships, top-down/bottom-up relations, food chains, food webs, mutualisms, intraguild predation, omnivory, etc., etc., etc. Moreover, a central idea throughout is the “coexistence” of species in these various community configurations. I played for years with how to structure this course, until a few years ago, the obvious structure came to me. That structure was to start the course considering a very simple predator-prey system, and then simply to add different types of species to this simple system to make more complex systems. In reorganizing the course along these lines, the relationships among a number of these community types became apparent (at least to me). Two of my recent papers considering models of community structure are the direct result of this reorganization of my community ecology class (see McPeek 2012 and 2014).
Finally, these ideas also can apply to the most introductory of courses. At this level, one is unlikely to find advances in hard research questions. However, one can explore many new types of presentations and contexts in which to place basic information. By this, I mean placing topics in contexts that are exciting to you, and by doing so, this will make it exciting to students.
If your focus is on creating exciting classes for students that also stimulate your research self, your teaching and research will be synergistic.