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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
Balancing Teaching & Research: The Struggles of a New Assistant Professor
Dr Wee Su-Lin, Valerie
Department of English Language & Literature

When CDTL first approached me to share my experiences on balancing teaching and research, I must admit to no small measure of surprise. While I have a fair amount of experience with struggling to effectively combine my commitment to teaching and research, I cannot claim to have discovered any definitive solution to the challenges I still continue to face. I would like to believe that as a fairly fresh PhD graduate and new member of faculty, my difficulties are a consequence of adapting to new tasks and systems. The following account offers some brief insights into the problems I have encountered attempting to both teach and do research.

Let me begin with a little personal information. I graduated with my PhD in 2002 and returned to Singapore and joined NUS in May of that year. I have been at the Department of English Language & Literature for the last two years, teaching film and media studies. I know the importance of maintaining a healthy publishing record while also attending to my teaching responsibilities. The fact remains that effectively accomplishing either one of the tasks would have been an exciting challenge, but doing BOTH has been a continuing struggle.

One of my first realisations is that it is difficult to split your time equally between teaching and research because the demands on teaching are generally so very much more present and unavoidable, and the rewards so much more immediate. While the demands of teaching in terms of time spent in class, meeting with students and on grading never actually decrease across semesters, teaching a course for the first time is particularly challenging and the amount of time spent on preparation especially heavy. As new members of faculty, most of us do not have already existing lectures and teaching materials to modify or fall back on. Instead, all lectures, PowerPoint slides, lecture handouts, readings and tutorial tasks need to be generated, often from scratch. My attempts to do so are also often hindered by the lack of much actual experience in producing effective materials. Consequently, a tremendous amount of time and energy is focused on these tasks. Furthermore, after the class has been taught, I find myself spending a significant amount of time on revising and refining my materials, my approach and my techniques. For it is only then that I have any perspective on which strategies worked and which were less successful. Consequently, in the two years that I have been teaching, my teaching-oriented preparations have shifted to trying to find solutions for the less effective aspects of my earlier teaching sessions so as to improve my abilities for future class sessions. This is an extremely time consuming and exhausting series of tasks. As a result, my research is often neglected and forced to take a back seat.

In the last two years, I have attempted two strategies to ‘correct’ this imbalance. Let me offer an account of what I have tried as well as some comments about how useful I found them.

1. The Reading/Research Group

The idea behind establishing a small reading group was to create a situation in which research became as important a priority as teaching. Each week, one of the group’s members would submit his/her work for comment. As members of the group agreed to meet weekly, this would serve as motivation and encourage members to focus on their research in anticipation of each weekly session. The meeting also gave the researcher the opportunity to gather feedback and support from colleagues.

One of the strong points in this approach is the motivational force provided by a deadline, and the knowledge that colleagues were setting aside time to go over the material. The feedback and comments generated can also be extremely helpful for all the participants.

It is worth noting that this strategy depends greatly on shared interests and areas of research. In many cases, the usefulness and relevance of the feedback is dependent on readers familiar with the field. While colleagues from unrelated fields can offer helpful comments, these tend to be of a more general nature. One drawback is that group sessions can actually add to work stress as it means additional work to complete within a limited amount of time—not only do you have to work on your own research, additional time must be set aside to go over colleagues’ submissions.

2. Blocking off Research Hours

The plan here is to set aside a block of time every day, or over a week solely for research. This strategy can be fairly helpful for the disciplined and those who have some control in planning their schedule. This was quite effective for me in a lighter semester when my classes were in the late afternoon and evening. This schedule freed up the morning so that I could focus on research and writing. Because I could set aside a few hours, without interruption, I was able to spend that time effectively attending to a single, focused pursuit.

One key benefit here is the luxury of immersing yourself in research for a fairly substantial amount of time each day/week. The time set aside also allowed for more effective concentration on a single task.

The greatest problem with this approach is that it is much harder to implement in a busy semester. When I taught two undergraduate courses and had classes every day of the week, my time and attention at that time was focused on the many teaching oriented tasks, including a tremendous amount of marking. The schedule that resulted consisted of limited pockets of free time, but these were often too short to truly immerse myself in the work. I usually had to stop before I had achieved my set goals, which often resulted in some frustration and annoyance. However, I found this particular strategy one of the more effective and helpful ones.

I cannot claim to have found a way to effectively balance my research and teaching, nor am I in any position to advocate any particular technique. But I believe I have uncovered some possibly useful ways, and I continue to search and experiment in the hopes of one day finding a way that best suits me.

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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