Every good university teacher is also a researcher, whether they’re paid for it or not.
To understand the importance of this reality, let’s start by looking at the student’s learning experience. Universities don’t teach to a government-mandated curriculum. Instead, academic colleagues work together as departments to determine the topics and approaches that their degree courses should cover – and individual lecturers’ own scholarly interests drive a significant proportion of most students’ learning, on specialist modules.
Each course, from the ground up, is predicated on the disciplinary knowledge and scholarly engagement of at least one academic department. That knowledge and engagement come from the activities that we label “research”.
I’m a historian, so the examples I’ll give come from that discipline, but the same basic relationship applies across all academic subjects. There are several questions you have to answer before you can begin to teach history at university. What historical problems are important? How do we currently understand those problems? What kinds of evidence are available? How do we use that evidence?
The answer to each of those questions is more or less continually changing, and will often differ between individual academics. Knowledge is always on the move, and it’s rarely consensual. To keep up, and bring students into that ongoing conversation, we have to be part of it ourselves.
No one has any trouble understanding that the work of teaching is much more than just the hours spent in lecture halls and seminar rooms, or marking and giving feedback. Lecturers must also gather and present material for classes, create visual presentations, write lectures, keep online learning environments up to date, invent activities for classroom work and plan discussions that will get the most out of a 50-minute session.
All that practical work is labelled “teaching preparation”, and the time that’s allocated to it is up for discussion between university staff, management and students.
None of us can do any of that work well without the underlying sense of field and discipline that we gain, and maintain, from our research. It’s there that the real teaching preparation lies. In an emergency, I could teach a great class on the American Revolution without any lecture notes, handouts, slide show or plan – and any one of us, I’ll wager, could do the same in our own fields (however nervous it might make us!).
But I could never teach effectively, on any topic, without some actual knowledge and engagement. Without research, teaching at university level is impossible.
It may, ironically, be teaching-focused staff who know this best of all – especially the teaching fellows and other casualised, fixed-term and part-time workers who are now responsible for so much of the learning experience at UK universities.
They may be paid to teach, not to research; but to teach well (not to mention move their careers forward), they must keep up with research as well.
This is the unpaid labour on which UK universities now calculate their budgets.
And as they reduce the research allocations of their permanent staff, too, they start to place us all in the position of the teaching fellow.
Knowing that we can’t teach well without doing our research, they demand a form of quasi-voluntary self-exploitation: working outside paid hours to maintain connection with the disciplines and fields that are the intellectual lifeblood of what we do. They can only keep the pressure up so hard, so long before the circulation is cut off entirely.
Tom Cutterham is a lecturer in US history at the University of Birmingham.