Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Research-based education (4): a short rant

I was riled last week in a brainstorming session with colleagues from across the university, when, in response to a question about 'the present state of affairs' about research-teaching relationships, the three people on my table wanted to write on a post-it note that 'teaching is secondary to research'.

Why did their response upset me? For three reasons; but with this cloud there's a silver lining, as you'll see at the end.

Firstly, it seems to me that neither in the practical management of day-to-day affairs, nor in the idealistic sphere of values and priorities, does teaching come second to research for the colleagues I know and have worked with in art history departments in the UK (for the record: UCL, Oxford Brookes, the OU, and Birkbeck). If anything, it's the reverse: time spent on teaching eats away (rarely munching: always a nibble here, half a mouthful there) at time which has been blocked out for other things. A colleague in a rush will stop what they're doing and write an emergency reference for a students' postgraduate funding application; they'll turn out en masse for a student conference on a Saturday; a short trip to the library is put aside to update a reading list; evenings on vacation research trips are spent marking essays. And they do it because its for 'their' students. 

Research has to be done, of course; and sometimes it appears to students that research does take priority, as when classes or office hours are cancelled because of attendance at a conference (not, it has to be said, usually organised by another university, but by a gallery or other body). My colleagues at the brainstorming session certainly failed to see that research brings in huge amounts of money, and with it, pressure. A lecturer who rearranges their office hours tends to do so as a last resort. But more importantly still, what's the discipline if not its research? Or, put another way, can the teaching of a subject like art history ever be divorced from its research? I don't think so. Considered intellectually, there's no 'body of knowledge' in art history; nothing equivalent to anatomy in medicine or chemistry for pharmacists (I put my neck on the block in saying this). Any student who hoped to 'master' a body of knowledge would look in vain, and wouldn't ever really understand what the whole subject was about, and would never get the point of (among other things) seminars and essays. A student's successful cognitive development in art history - their knowledge of facts, processes, their ability to observe, understand, analyse, synthesise, explain, evaluate, create, reflect - are all premised on the basic point that academic work is all about developing intellectual commitments, as William Perry wrote in his famous 1970 study of Harvard students, Forms of Intellectual and Ethical Development in the College Years. And there are no intellectual commitments to be made in static subjects.

The third reason I was upset by my brainstorming colleagues' comments is that none of them were in the position to make the comment with any knowledge, since only one taught, and none are research-active, although each does do some research (which should have given them pause for thought). 

In summary: my colleagues don't put research above teaching; yet the prominence that research does take in their thoughts and actions is entirely merited.

Thankfully there's a silver lining here, as I mentioned earlier. Your blogger ranted for a short while at  the inaccuracy and ill-conceived nature of his colleagues' presumptions. One fellow-brainstormer then said, sagely, that perhaps the problem was not that teaching was secondary to research, but that the relationship could be made more productive. This I wholeheartedly agreed with: its something I've blogged about and will continue to do so. But this will only be achieved if we take as our starting point the intellectual premise that research and teaching weren't ever separate to begin with.   

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