Why I believe that my teaching duties make me a better researcher

Those past three weeks have been almost exclusively dedicated to my teaching duties. In parallel to taking two different courses organized by the didactics department at Uppsala University (an academic teacher training course and a class on supervising students), I have been working on setting up two new courses that will be launched in a few weeks.  One of them, “Complex IT in large organizations”, is led by my supervisor Åsa Cajander and will be held for the very first time (I have written about it in the blog of my research group). The other, an online introductory course in HCI, has gone through a thorough restructuration, and it will be the new design’s first iteration (fingers crossed!).

Creating new courses (or making new courses out of old ones) is one of my favorite activities as a PhD student. However, looking around me, I realize that the people sharing this preference are rather few. Often, the reason for this is that teaching duties are experienced as being an impediment to doing research: the time dedicated to teaching is seen as time “stolen” from what actually counts – yes, research. I do not share this negative perception of teaching.

Obviously, I do not mean that teaching does not take time, because it does. Actually, in my experience, high quality teaching always requires more time than what is being allocated to teaching staff. (Of course, this perception also comes from the fact that I am an inexperienced teacher, and that most of my teaching work is made of first-time events.) In any case, I have found that dedicating those extra hours to the task is what makes teaching a rewarding endeavor. As such, I do not mind spending several additional hours away from my research in order to make sure that my teaching sessions will be a meaningful experience for both my students and me.

Most importantly, I have come to see that teaching and researching are not mutually exclusive. I do not stop being a researcher when I teach, and I do not stop being a teacher when I am working on my research. On the contrary, I can use the one to “feed” the other – and vice versa. For example, as I was looking for additional course literature for my students in the HCI online course, I stumbled upon a resource that was extremely relevant to my research topic. Likewise, as I was pondering the implications of an article in the context of my research, I became inspired to review the design of the course (then still in progress) in order to incorporate the new perspective I had just learnt about. This enabled to understand better what the approach was about in addition to improving on my original course idea.

In the classroom, I also like spreading the word about my research – I openly confess to attempting to convert my students to user-centered values – and using it to support students in their learning process. Would I enjoy researching without teaching duties? I think I would. But there is so much I would miss, overlook or simply not reflect about if I didn’t have to teach that I am actually grateful I have to.

What is your experience of teaching within academia?