The teaching-research ‘balance’ as an ECR

I’m almost at the end of the tunnel that was teaching this trimester*. It’s not my first time teaching or coordinating. I started this position last year, and I’ve had a few casual contracts before at different unis.

But I found this trimester particularly hard, mostly because of the amount of new content I had to create. This was largely due to a very outdated set of inherited lectures in one unit and a new set of topics allocated to me in the other unit.

I am utterly exhausted. I have had very little time to think about research, do research, write blogs, relax, sew, play my guitar, or do anything non-work-related since February (except for a few days of being unwell!).

This blog is not to whinge. I love my job, I love teaching and I really love the units I teach.

I am not the only academic to experience teaching fatigue. But it is unsustainable and new staff members, particularly early career researchers, seem to suffer this most. Yet it’s a ‘too hard basket’ problem that most academics don’t know what to do about.

An academic’s job description requires us to conduct research and contribute to our discipline (including supervising research students) at the same time as teaching undergraduate courses. We are literally hired to do two full-time jobs at once.

Taking on a new unit for the first time is a challenge for any level of experience, but it is more so for early career academics who are usually dealing simultaneously with: unit content that has not been updated for years; learning their way around EVERYthing at the uni; taking on content that is outside their own discipline, which requires extra work to simply learn it before writing/teaching it; AND trying to maintain their career trajectory.

A lot of the ‘overworked teacher’ advice you hear puts the onus on the academic themselves to change things – take breaks, take time off, take time to relax, read a book. This is the same straw man argument as “we can’t do anything about climate change unless you the individual personally change your ways”.

Whenever these issues are discussed, I hear a few flawed responses over and over again:

  • (from senior academics, even well-meaning ones) “Oh well, we all had to go through that, it’s just part of being a new academic.” Unfortunately, the perspective of senior academics is confounded by a few things: (i) time: known to play tricks with your memory; (ii) digital teaching technology: most likely a minimal or unnecessary skill they were required to learn in their first years of teaching; (iii) discipline advances: the literature on any given discipline has increased rapidly in recent decades, so writing a new lecture today can take a lot longer than it may have 20 years ago.
  • “It’s easy, just integrate your teaching and research”. Easier said than done. This is another skill that comes with experience. In their first few years, most new staff are just trying to keep their head above water…no time to design a rigorous new pedagogical research project. Also, Human Ethics – many universities won’t let you do research via your classes without ethics approval, which can take 6-12 months to get.
  • “You must be spending too much time on each lecture then, just knock it out in a few hours and move on!” This attitude devalues any academic who chooses to take time on their lectures, to make sure the facts are accurate and current consensus, to ensure the lectures are coherent, inclusive, engaging and visually appealing; and it devalues any academic who requires longer than the standard to write lectures, because of language barriers or disabilities.
  • (when discussing an experience in the past) “Oh well, you survived so it will be easier next time!” This is another toxic attitude that brushes off the problem and avoids a solution.

Here are a few more constructive things I think could help (mostly from an Australian perspective, academic systems differ widely between countries). None of these are a solution on their own, and many obviously require funding and other systems already in place to work**.

  • Fund more permanent academic roles. This should go without saying, but part of the reason many academics are overworked is because there aren’t enough academic staff being funded to cover all the teaching that needs to be done.
  • Hire professional staff to manage unit coordination/administration. Unit coordination is largely administrative, involving dealing with student queries about due dates etc., handling assessment extensions, setting up the online learning platform, dealing with bugs in the online learning platform etc. Discipline-specific academic expertise is not necessary for these tasks and anything that can alleviate the admin burden that is unreasonably dumped on academics is a good outcome.
  • Make teaching units in teams the norm. This takes the pressure off one person to write all the content alone. And I think it improves student learning outcomes.
  • Design workload models that account for different levels of staff experience. Many workload models apply standard numbers to all staff, which doesn’t account for the extra time new staff need for certain activities.
  • Fund marking support. Marking can cause mental fatigue at the best of times, but when combined with the stresses of writing new lectures every week, things can get nasty.
  • Put caps on class numbers, especially for advanced level units. This would help manage marking fatigue, especially for longform written assessments. Some academics will respond “get rid of written assessments, make your life easier” – but longform assessments are essential for students to develop writing and critical analysis skills.
  • Support grantees to keep minimal teaching activities. Overloaded academics leads to a circular problem – academics apply for big grants to buy out their teaching, to get the headspace they need to do research. This leads to increased workload for the academics without any funded teaching support, or results in more job insecurity for the casual academic pool hired temporarily to fill the gap. Supporting active researchers to also keep active in a small amount of teaching is beneficial for everyone – the students, the university, the department, and the academic.
  • Provide better admin support for academics to manage research grants. Similar to course-related admin, academics that are also juggling research projects need to meet (often onerous) reporting requirements, deal with internal grant admin and get invoices paid for research grants by deadlines. This is nearly impossible to do when also trying to keep up with lecture timetables and marking deadlines.
  • Allow ECRs to claim the first year of a new teaching position as a career interruption on grant applications. It has the same effect on research output as being unemployed.
  • Institutions allow a ‘grace period’ for new academic staff for promotion/tenure applications. One of the reasons many new staff overwork in those first years is because they need to prove themselves, either to transition to a continuing position (tenure) or apply for promotion. Yet those applications expect you to have maintained equal teaching and research momentum in that time.

What else?

________________

*Our uni follows a trimester teaching calendar: March-June; July-October; November-February.

**It’s not always the university’s responsibility to provide this funding – government support for quality public education is severely lacking in general, and most funding bodies won’t let you include teaching relief or support in your grant applications.

© Manu Saunders 2021

6 thoughts on “The teaching-research ‘balance’ as an ECR

  1. daysontheclaise June 2, 2021 / 8:32 PM

    Professional admin? You might as well say ‘housewife’ for all the value institutions put on admin support. All the admin support in organisations I know have been made redundant because they are an easy target.

    Like

  2. Anarchanthropus crapuloideus June 2, 2021 / 9:47 PM

    Thanks for this illustrating and relieving -I have to admit- post. In the end, the key solution is to hire more personnel, both teaching, research and administrative. But of course, as we all know, this is not possible in the social context we have built for ourselves. So it is not easy for the dynamics to change, and those of us who dedicate ourselves to what we like most have to pay the toll of satisfying the demands of three jobs at the same time (teaching, doing research and managing teaching and research activities). Who is capable of performing them all with excellence? Cheers.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Robin Heinen June 3, 2021 / 5:18 AM

    A great and very VERY recognizable post. I think the solutions are very sound (and would likely also work in other countries, from my view). However, I wonder if any of the toxicity of academia and the system will ever disappear. No matter what way you try to bend the system to be friendlier, there will always be the most narcissistic that will sacrifice everything to succeed at what they do. They will always be ‘better’ – judging merely by numbers. As long as we judge people solely by output, the system – any system – will benefit a very small proportion of people with certain character traits (‘narcissistic’ does not equate to ‘best’). It’s a self-perpetuating toxicity.

    Imagine if we just would let people do what they want to do. We’d have plenty of teachers that mostly want to teach, and plenty of researchers that mostly want to do research. The competition aspect ruins a lot…

    Thanks for writing this. It feels better to know that we’re not alone in feeling helpless sometimes (or even often!)…

    Liked by 1 person

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