Thursday, 7 March 2013

Teaching: not simply the poor relation

My colleague David Gehring sends me this article, one of several things I've seen in recent weeks which remind me that American academia can sometimes take teaching, especially undergraduate teaching, a little more seriously than is the case in Britain. In this vein I've also enjoyed reading, with a group of postgrads and staff in Durham, Ken Bain's wonderful What the Best College Teachers Do, which is a good antidote for academics like me who tend lazily to think, yeah, I'm probably quite good at teaching. (That said, part of this American discourse valorising good teaching also seems to be to describe its polar opposite: I am glad to say I have never come across teachers as jaw-droppingly crass and awful as those who feature in Bain's horror stories.)

So at the risk of sounding pious: yes, this is good. Read the article.

But it also makes me question this widespread assumption that academics' work can be divided into neat boxes called 'research' and 'teaching'. 'Research-led' teaching is a mantra in Durham now, and quite rightly, on the grounds that research feeds teaching in a whole range of ways (this is supposed to mean teaching students to be researchers, not just teaching them about your research). But that is just the beginning. Equally there's teaching-led research: the idea at the heart of my very first journal article arose from teaching I did as a postgrad.

And more than that, isn't all research teaching anyway? Writing a monograph isn't all that different from writing a lecture: whether you're teaching students physically in front of you or those who are consulting your book, it comes to much the same thing. We only research in order to digest, interpret and share our findings. And the process of doing so is an essential part of clarifying our own thoughts.

So perhaps the trick is finding ways to teach research less didactically and more discursively, less lecture-wise and more seminar-wise. Or at least to recognise that when I deliver a lecture, it may be that the only person whom I am teaching really effectively is myself.

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