Teach Your Own Research (and Ultimately Teach Yourself)
By Luis Henao Uribe
Academics often conceive of research and teaching as two separate practices competing for time. On top of books that have to be read and papers that need to be done (or at least started!), you also have to deal with lesson plans and grades. It’s only natural to want to prioritize those tasks closer to your academic and intellectual interests. In some cases, some senior faculty are explicit about where your energy and time should be invested. But this runs the risk of falling into the trap of considering teaching a temporary duty; as a full-time faculty member, you’ll be dividing your time between teaching (anywhere from 2 to 5 classes each semester), research, and service. Now is the time to start thinking about how these activities can feed each other since they are at the core of our professional practice.
Down the road, when the end of your student career is imminent (or at least conceivable), and you start to prepare for the job market, you’ll face a common question: How has your research influenced your teaching? In what ways have you been able to bring the insights of your research to courses at the undergraduate level? Of course, at that moment, it’s possible that you already have an answer; that the courses that you taught aligned in some way with your interests. Yet many graduate students are surprised by this question. Besides providing you with a confident answer to this question, connecting your own research and academic interests to your teaching via course design can be remarkably productive for both instructors and students alike.
Identifying the gap. Building the bridge.
Often, we don’t control which courses we teach and the levels of correspondence of those courses with our academics interest vary. We may be fortunate enough to have a perfect match, but often there is a more significant gap that we have to overcome. Could your research (or an aspect of it) be an underlying narrative of the course? Do you want your students to learn a methodology or a specific approach to the discipline? Is your research part of any of the arcs of the course? How would it fit within a sequence? For some years, I taught a Spanish Language class where the main goal was to establish the fundamentals of the language and the basic grammar structures; I found virtually no room to share my own work (that deals with the Mexican and Colombian novel of the 20th Century). Eventually, I taught a Latin American Literature and Culture class where the readings and themes of my investigation fit seamlessly with the narrative of the course. In both occasions, the challenges were different: How to select content that is meaningful and appropriate to each level? How to integrate my readings in line with the course objectives? Even if it boils down to a class activity, an assignment or a small lecture, presenting your research to your students will require some adjustments on your part.
Considering your audience.
Who do we write for? Often, as scholars, we take for granted the answer. Our readers are either too well defined (professors, colleagues, editorial boards) or too abstract (the field itself). In any case, our audience is part of the same intellectual community as us. Our professional development is supposed to prepare us to belong, after all. We know the codes, debates and references; we are able to communicate in a language that asserts our knowledge of the discipline and, at the same time, our place in it. But what happens then when we try to communicate with a different audience in our classrooms? What kinds of operations and adjustments do we need to make? What is the level of your students’ familiarity with your discipline? To reach and engage students outside your own discipline, you’ll have to introduce concepts that in your field may be taken for granted.
Teaching yourself: A reflection about your own academic work.
Presenting your research to your students will require you to think about the link between your specific work and the discipline. Often, by the level of the sophistication and expertise of our work, we spend a lot of time confined within very specific boundaries: a period of time (early 20th century, an aesthetic movement, the length of a war, etc.), a geographical area (western Colombia, New York City, or even a neighborhood), or a conceptual frame (silent movies, migrant workers). How does your proposed approach to the subject (your inquiry questions) correlate to the discipline? Does it expand any of the existing conversations in your field? Does it challenge previous notions considered canonical? This is also a good starting point to prepare for another of those questions that you’ll face in the late stage of your graduate career: What is innovative about your research? More than that, gaining expertise and confidence talking about your research is a needed skill on its own. Many opportunities (of publishing, funding, or creating professional connections) depend on your ability to explain both the nature of your research and its value. You need to present your research as part of the big picture of your field or discipline, while conveying what is unique about your work. Teaching requires you to find a balance between the general and the specific as you consider students as your audience.
Teaching about yourself: Method to madness?
As graduate students, we learn constantly from our professors’ scholarly research but also from their own methods. As former CUNY Humanities Alliance Fellow Emily Brooks mentions: “My professors have discussed how they formulated their research questions, problems or surprises they encountered while writing, and sometimes information about how they took their work from dissertation to book”. Yes, your students will benefit from learning about your research by being exposed to new avenues and approaches within your field. But also your contribution goes beyond the discipline: by positioning yourself as an active scholar and opening up about your academic interests, struggles, and successes, you are establishing yourself as a role model. Once a semester, while preparing some of my students for their papers, I talk about my own method: how do I develop ideas into writing, how to do a rewrite of a paragraph, etc. I’m also honest about my challenges: i.e, balancing time and responsibilities and how I deal with them: for example, I work in small chunks of time. I understand how my methods are a result of my own academic journey, and how my students have to find what works for them. By showing them “behind the curtain,” I remove some of the mystique of the “completed assignment” and validate the process of getting there. My own academic production (as any of the texts that we read in class) is part of an elaborate and laborious effort. This has eased some of my students’ anxieties and concerns regarding writing academic papers, while giving them the confidence to share their own struggles and strategies.
Even if you don’t see an apparent overlap between your research and your teaching, bringing them together when and where you can is a win-win-win situation. Make room to create that connection; it will be worth the effort.
Source: Visible Pedagogy