Teaching and Research—two sides of the same coin

Rather than separate aspects of professional practice, my research and teaching are intertwined and mutually beneficial with each one informing the other.  There are many examples—from the practical exercise for one of the ornithology subjects I teach revealing a hitherto unappreciated relationship across all birds that then formed the basis of an Honours thesis and associated publication, to reflecting on student questions regarding the fundamentally different way bird species are delineated, inspiring a literature review and subsequent journal article that’s now the key reading for that subject.

One of the undergraduate subjects I coordinate departs from the usual chalk-and-talk, lecture driven format that still characterizes university teaching.  In fact, there isn’t a single lecture in the whole class.  It is entirely field based, all instruction carried out during an 18-day extended field trip to the deserts of far north-western New South Wales.  The first assignment for this subject is a Wikipedia species profile which the students complete and upload to the online encylopædia before departure, covering a species of plant or animals that lives where we’ll be travelling.  What began as a preparatory exercise that gave the students a preview of the places and faces they’d soon be experiencing firsthand, it’s become something much more personal.  Having filled in a blank on one of the most visited websites, students become invested in ‘their’ wikispecies, and seeing it with their own eyes has become a priority.  Although the assignment is graded before we depart, many go on to add new information to the website upon their return—photographs, natural history notes, updated maps and life history information learned firsthand.

This connection, and the role students play in communicating information about their chosen species to the wider community, is an illustrative vignette of the value of higher education.  During our evening ‘fireside chats’ in the field, a persistent theme is the importance of personal connections in changing values and belief systems.  Despite preconceptions of how little they may think they know, I remind my students just how much they do know.  In most rooms they find themselves, they are the educated person, they are the ones their friends, families and co-workers turn to, to help navigate the daily headlines and diversity of facts, falsehoods and feel-pinions.  The key elements of the marking rubric required to achieve a high distinction—reliance on peer-reviewed literature, understanding that information available online is a small subset of knowledge on any issue, recognition of traditional ecological knowledge, the utility of images to convey complex information—are also the generic hallmarks of critical thinking.

So, by proactively dissolving the boundaries between teaching and research, between learning and discovering, I’m progressively improving as both an engaged teacher and a creative researcher.  Rather than measuring them in days-to-respond or track-changes to submitted work, I regard my interactions with my students as invaluable opportunities to calibrate my science, challenge my preconceptions regarding information systems and a window into the values, beliefs and world views that evidence-based scholarship aims to inform.

The black triangle is the family mean for Kiwis