Is doing research better than teaching?

By Mark Aspinwall

‘When I was 15, my teacher was so ignorant I could hardly stand to be in the same room. But when I got to be 18, I was astonished at how much he had learned in three years.’  (Mark Twain)

Most academics, when all is said and done, want to have an impact. That’s why they write so much, and why they’re so keen to publish. But whether they realize it or not, their impact is felt just as much through their teaching as through their research.

Like other universities, Edinburgh academics are required to research and publish. It’s what makes our name, influences debates, draws top PhD candidates, links us to world-leading institutes and researchers, and shapes policy. Without research we would simply be a mouthpiece for understandings developed elsewhere – just like your high school teachers.

But if we spend time doing research, does that mean our teaching effort goes down? No. I think it’s a positive-sum game.

Research works its way into our teaching in a number of ways. First, some of the most highly-visible and widely-cited of our work is also the most accessible. We use it in our teaching.

Second, even when our research is much more complex, the classroom forces us to communicate complex arguments in simple language. We need to synthesize and make relevant what can seem like arcane, narrow investigations. Teaching helps us make our arguments clear, and can reveal faults in our research design.

Students at all levels contribute to this process. Simple questions require arguments to be clarified. New ideas pop into old heads. Course syllabi sometimes evolve from weekly lecture topics into book chapters. Students even contribute by helping with research projects and tasks.

Research feeds teaching. Students feed research.

Our PhD students are at the interface of research and teaching. They are doing work as advanced as us old-timers, yet their thinking and their communication is often more supple and sympathetic. They are our capillaries of knowledge.

We are also fortunate to have some great teachers among the permanent staff. Chad Damro has been awarded the Political Studies Association award for the best teaching in politics at any university in the UK. Elizabeth Bomberg won the same award in a different year, and has also won the award for best teacher in any department in the University of Edinburgh. Both are active researchers – Damro is on the cusp of making a major contribution to our understanding of the international influence of the European Union. 

Not everyone loves to teach, and as with anything, some are better than others. But it is central to our activities, and stands alongside research as an equal. I can’t do better than to end with a quote from Robert Keohane, one of the giants in the field of International Relations, and a major influence on the thinking of IR scholars:

‘Never disparage teaching. It is an intrinsic part of political science as a vocation. Furthermore, it provides much more immediate gratification than research. If you give a good lecture or teach a lively, thoughtful seminar, the gratification is immediate: you know you accomplished something that day.’

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4 thoughts on “Is doing research better than teaching?

  1. Jonathon says:

    “Without research we would simply be a mouthpiece for understandings developed elsewhere – just like your high school teachers”

    Does this mean high school teachers are less important than university lecturers? Sounds like a Straussian argument….

  2. Radoslaw Kowalski says:

    I think it doesn’t necessarily mean researchers are better than teachers. The former are usually better paid than the latter so there is a financial, not any essential merit/knowledge difference.
    I for example had academics teaching in my high school. They abandoned university for high school teaching. What I want to say: these two groups are not so much separated.

    But why did my teachers leave university though?

    To an extent because they had no realistic research opportunities available. To them, being at the university was valuable as long as they could do research. They got jobs there, but they didn’t want them once they learned they can’t do anything but teaching.

    I suppose that teaching only can be a mundane exercise for someone ambitious who wants to embody the university researcher ethos and do something useful for other people in their lifetime.
    In high school you have a much greater impact on shaping students’ knowledge and worldview for their future life. If salary was comparable, and research wouldn’t take place at the university level, I would say being a high school teacher would be much more fun!

  3. Radoslaw Kowalski says:

    The article is an interesting read, similarly to author’s entry to the most recent Leviathan (happened to see one copy in the Main Library)

    Any comments?

    It’s good to debate the timeless ethical issues so that knowledge about what university work should be about is upheld and largely taken for granted and practiced by future researchers.

    I wish we could read more about how socially useful quality research and teaching come about. What’s the contribution of personal input and what comes about thanks to rules governing the university collective? More so: what hinders such positive contributions? These are very interesting questions

  4. Mark says:

    Good comments – I think high school teachers may be more important than university lecturers in some ways. They reach a higher percentage of the population. They also can inspire students to move up into higher education. But they need to be valued – and to feel valued.

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