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Research and teaching go hand-in-hand for University of Calgary arts professors

By Tina Shaygan, October 25 2016 —

Of the activities that could enrich the “student experience,” getting involved with research may not be the first thing that comes to mind. But conducting research at an undergraduate level is the foundation of higher education.

For those not involved in undergraduate research themselves, it may seem far from their classroom experience and not something that impacts them directly. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. I sat down with two Faculty of Arts professors to better understand the relationship between their research and teaching.

Rebecca Sullivan is a professor in the University of Calgary English department who specializes in feminist media and cultural studies. She is also involved with outside-the-classroom student initiatives as well as with organizations like the Women’s Resources Centre.

While some students may not factor in a professor’s research background when deciding on classes,  Sullivan sees the two as being the same.

“Teaching and research are mutually reinforcing. To emphasize one over the other is to do neither well. If a professor does not have a robust and on-going program of research, then students are being short-served,” she said.

For Sullivan, teaching and research are mutually beneficial.

“I coordinate my research and teaching. I use the classroom to workshop new ideas and gain concrete insights from students who often see things differently from me and can really help crystalize my rambling thoughts,” Sullivan said.

A popular face around the history department and a recipient of the 3M National Teaching Fellowship, Ken MacMillan specializes in the history of early modern England, Europe and the Atlantic World. He also emphasizes the close relationship between research and the classroom.

“It’s important for students to know that their instructors are active practitioners. We need to be updated on methodologies, we need to be updated on arguments. And the best way to do that is to continue doing our own research,” MacMillan said.

While research and teaching may seem like different responsibilities, MacMillan disagrees.

“The advantage of continuing to do research on a regular basis is that it forces you to keep up with the literature,” he said.

For the two professors there does not seem to be major disadvantages when it comes to balancing their research and teaching responsibilities.

“As professors, we have a 40 per cent research, 40 per cent teaching and 20 per cent service time breakdown. We need to take a long view in terms of what we want to accomplish and when we can actually get it done,” Sullivan said. “We also need to make time for self-care, but there are no excuses for not staying active in all three areas. We have one of the greatest jobs and we owe it to the community to do our job well.”

When it comes to students’ involvement, Sullivan and MacMillan agree research is a fundamental part of an undergraduate experience — and up to the students to pursue.

“Students don’t need to be passive recipients of their professor’s research. They can also be involved — but need to approach us and show they’re interested in doing so,”
MacMillan said.

MacMillan also emphasized the value of the experience of completing a research project.

“I worked with several students a few years ago on what became my new book. They learned the pleasures and the challenges involved with conducting research and with the project, literally from its inception all the way to the point where the book was published,” he said. “They got immeasurable experience out of that. It is actually what convinced them to go to graduate school.” 

For Sullivan, getting involved with research indicates a level of independence and maturity.

“Students need to understand that being at university is a privilege. We aren’t going to tell them what to do anymore — we are part of a knowledge-producing community,” she said.

Research underlines the relationship between a professor and their classroom — and to leave university without that experience would be to leave university without understanding the foundation of our education.

Next time you are looking for a way to expand your extra-curricular activities, consider asking your favourite professor if you can learn more about their work, or a component of the course that interests you. You probably won’t discover the next ground-breaking concept, but you’ll still learn something valuable.

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