Sessional academics: how to balance the demands of teaching and research

Teaching and research are the pillars of academia, yet these two roles often end up in opposition to one another, says Tara East

Tara East's avatar
10 Mar 2022
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Sessional academics early in their careers should learn how to balance the competing demands of teaching and research

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If you’re completing a PhD or a doctorate, it’s probably because you want to be an academic. Sadly, though, a dissertation does not a career make; if you want to become an academic, you’ll need teaching experience.

Academics are usually teachers and researchers; it’s an accepted part of being a scholar. Landing your first job post-graduation is incredibly difficult, and you’ll most likely spend years bouncing from one casual, semester-long contract to another. So how do you stand out in a competitive market? The old advice would have been: do what everyone else does, but more! More publications. More teaching experience. But with our growing awareness of work/life balance, hustle culture and burnout, we know that doing more is rarely the answer – at least not if you want to build a sustainable and enjoyable career.

Teaching and research are the pillars of academia, and yet these two roles often end up in opposition to one another, unless, of course, your research interest includes teaching pedagogy.

At best, the differences between teaching and research can add rich variety to our weekly schedules. At worst, teaching can become a threat to research.

Teaching is structured. It’s fast, the schedule is tight and the weekly checklists of to-dos are clear, specific and repeatable: read set texts; write a course announcement; prepare PowerPoint slide; check FAQ forum and your inbox.

Leading a workshop is performative; the energy is outward, and you need to be wearing your extrovert pants, but no one tells you how exhausting it is. The effort it takes to keep a discussion going, the resistance it takes to not give them the answer (or your opinion), and the enthusiasm you must summon to make them enthusiastic about their own learning – it’s a lot. It’s an endless exhale. It’s a three-hour wringing of the lungs. And then, at last, someone raises their hand, and you are flooded with relief. Yes! A question!

“When is the assignment due?”

Just try working on your methodology after such crushing disappointment.

At the same time, one of the good things about being a casual academic is that some of the hard work has been done for you. The set readings have been selected and the course content mapped out. You still have to do the gruelling work of teaching, marking and being a mentor to your students, but you didn’t have to build the course.

Although teaching demands a lot of us, in some ways it’s easier than research. You know what you have to do, when you have to do it and your tasks have distinct beginnings and endings. You actually finish stuff. And that, dear friends, makes for spreadsheet satisfaction.

Teaching can be hard, tiring and occasionally deflating, but it can also be weirdly addictive. Completing tasks gives us an adrenaline boost. It feels nice to encourage students (and even nicer when they say “thank you”). And there is nothing better than when an interesting discussion breaks out in class. Semesters have momentum, too, with weekly set topics and assessment deadlines making for an easy way to measure the passing of time.

Research is different. At the end of their first year, doctoral candidates complete a confirmation of candidature where they present their project to a panel for evaluation. Beyond this significant marker, there are no real milestones except the arbitrary ones you set for yourself. Research is inward; it requires deep thinking because you are creating original content. It is cognitively demanding as you are reading difficult works that require you to decipher their meaning. You need the mental and temporal space to muck around in this mess of your own making. Completing a PhD can sometimes feel a bit like being unemployed. You’re home all day, in front of the computer, wearing soft pants, trying to find something interesting on the internet.

In a nutshell: research takes deep focus; teaching is (often) busywork.

So how do you juggle the two? This is where boundaries come in. The only way I can make these competing priorities work is by having designated teaching days and research days.

Days when I am on campus are teaching days. These days are for teaching-related responsibilities, office hours, student consultations or team meetings. As a casual academic, it is far easier to dedicate two or three days each week to teaching than to allow an ad hoc approach to responding to emails or requests dictate the structure of the day or week. Time-blocking also allows me to be realistic about how much I can get done in a day. If I have a three-hour workshop in the morning and a short meeting late in the afternoon, I know when I can slot in some class prep.

On research days, I don’t open my email. Or if I do, it’s late in the afternoon, after I’ve finished reading or writing. If I need to meet with my supervisor, I organise it for a research day, preferably in the afternoon so that my mornings can be uninterrupted. I don’t time-block on research days, instead I allow the day to be more open because research, despite my best attempts, usually happens organically. One journal article leads to another, which sparks an idea, which goes on a Post-It, which reminds me of something else that I read, and so on. Yes, there is a loose list of tasks hovering in the ether, but more often than not, I intuitively know what needs to be done. These days are both spooling and focused; an approach so delicate that any interruption can cause me to lose the thread.

If dedicating whole days to teaching or research isn’t possible, then I recommend splitting your days in half. I’d say that it’s possible to go from research tasks (mornings) to teaching tasks (afternoons), but not the other way around – the mental shift, I’ve found, is just too severe.

You don’t have to quit teaching to be a researcher; it is not an either/or situation. We need both. Acknowledging the inherent differences between these two responsibilities, setting boundaries and having a good time-blocking system is just a way to get there. Ignoring email is the other.

Tara East is a sessional academic at the University of Southern Queensland, where she is currently completing her doctorate in creative writing. Her non-fiction work has appeared in the Huffington Post, Queensland Writers Centre, and the Creative Penn. Her fiction has been published in October Hill Magazine and TEXT journal.

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