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This issue of CDTL Brief on Balancing Teaching and Research discusses the delicate relationship between teaching and research and offers tips on how to balance them optimally.

August 2004, Vol. 7, No. 7 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
Strengthening the Teaching-research Nexus
Assistant Professor Lionel Wee
Department of English Language & Literature

In the study of language planning, particularly when looking at how languages are accommodated in multilingual societies, it has been observed that language policies typically adopt a strategy of ‘unilingualism’, where they attempt to carve out unique spaces for individual languages. For example, a language like Mandarin may be specifically assigned to particular domains of social life while some other language such as English is assigned to yet other domains. The goal here is to avoid overlapping functions so that there is minimal competition between the different languages. But despite the intentions behind such policies, actual linguistic practices indicate that speakers, rather than formally separating the two languages, may sometimes instead code-switch back and forth between Mandarin and English within the same situation. The result, over time, may even be the emergence of a hybridised variety that contains elements originally traceable to Mandarin and English, but this new variety is in fact a distinct and fully developed language in its own right, no longer reducible to its linguistic parents.

The same considerations, I believe, apply to any attempt to balance those activities that are more concerned with teaching and those concerned with, say, research. A common mindset is that specific blocks of time must be set aside for each activity. In extreme cases, one sometimes hears the lament that term time is completely dedicated to teaching and it is only during term breaks (or sabbatical or study leave) that research becomes a real possibility. While it is certainly useful to try to create separate ‘time-zones’ dedicated to teaching and to research, it is also unrealistic to wait until teaching is ‘done’ before beginning research. So, rather than aiming for a ‘unilingual’ approach to balancing teaching and research, one should seriously consider attempting to intertwine the two, switching and mixing them such that the boundaries become blurred. The advantage to having such an interaction between teaching and research means that one can view teaching as an opportunity to do better research, and research as an opportunity to improve one’s teaching. Time spent on one activity does not necessarily detract from the other, as it would in a zero-sum game. Consequently, the idea of balancing teaching and research does not mean finding the time to do each of them separately, but finding ways of creating synergy between them so that one is regularly involved in a research-teaching nexus.

As a result, one’s teaching becomes ‘porous’ in the sense that it is infused with research-oriented considerations. And importantly, ‘porous’ teaching means that one should not have to apologise for tailoring a module syllabus to cater to one’s own research agenda. Students can only benefit from the teaching once they realise that the issues being discussed are not purely pedagogical but are intimately linked with ongoing scholarly debate, in which their module lecturer is actively engaged. Conversely, the lecturer herself can find renewed vigour and enthusiasm in teaching a module if the topics reflect research questions that she is dealing with even outside of the class. The passion of the lecturer can come through as she runs through different theoretical or analytical perspectives; the students can sense this passion and oftentimes, themselves become infected so that their own learning is no longer just viewed with a kind of cynical detachment; and it is even entirely possible that they might provide critical viewpoints and comments that could contribute to the research outcome.

In my own case, I regularly issue a caveat that the readings and topics in my modules are subject to change, both in response to the students’ own interests and to new research directions that might offer themselves in the course of the semester. I have also adopted the practice of using the ‘Notes to contributors’ section of international refereed journals as part of my instructions to students concerning their submission of essays. This is to encourage the students to see themselves as potential members of a research community, and to concretise for them the idea that essays are not merely written to fulfil some form of assessment, but that there are people who actually spend a significant amount of time and effort in trying to publish their work, because of their intellectual commitment to the ideas that they are trying to develop. I also habitually incorporate into the module ideas and articles that I am grappling with in the papers I am attempting to complete. And if in the course of a semester, I receive drafts of papers from overseas colleagues that are relevant to what I am teaching, I happily incorporate these into the class discussions so that rather than receiving knowledge that has the veneer of final authority, students are given an appreciation of how the process of academic debate may or may not lead to some kind of scholarly consensus.

Perhaps it is appropriate to end this article by acknowledging that arriving at an optimal research-teaching nexus is never easy. No doubt, there are external constraints that some of us can do little about. For example, it is probably much easier to incorporate research into teaching if one is chairing an Honours or postgraduate module rather than a first year introductory module. But what this serves to highlight is that the search for an optimal balance between teaching and research is an ongoing process. To use an Asian metaphor, it is much like the desire to balance one’s yin and yang, where one has to continually make sure that one eats appropriate amounts of cooling and heaty foods; there is no final state except death.

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Inside this issue
Strengthening the Teaching-research Nexus
Balancing Teaching & Research: The Struggles of a New Assistant Professor
My Ride on the MRT: Marriage between Research and Teaching
Research/ Writing Groups
Integrating Research into Teaching