Research is teaching preparation

Effective teaching requires lecturers to stay on top of their research. But this is labour that often goes unpaid, says Tom Cutterham

April 17, 2019
lecturer, lecturing, teaching, lecture hall
Source: iStock

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.

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Print headline: No teaching without research

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Reader's comments (9)

To teach well may or may not require active or even passive research : just an effective and transmissible knowledge of the subject matter gained through wide , deep and constant access to relevant materials; those materials may come from any legitimate source (s) including from those who do the actual researching. BTW. ... it should not be assumed that good researchers are for that reason also good teachers. Often the one stands in the way of the other. It’s good news if some universities are beginning to realize this and decide to grant each track ( teach and or research ) it’s own due prominence. Basil jide fadipe
Basil, it seems to me that "an effective and transmissible knowledge of the subject matter gained through wide, deep and constant access to relevant materials" is a fairly good description of (at least one kind of) research activity! It's the "constant access" part that I'm particularly keen to emphasise in this piece. If universities are not paying lecturers to do research (i.e. to continually maintain their relationship with changing disciplinary knowledge) then that labour is most likely being done for free.
The responder above reflects the true reality of University life. Enlightened Universities employ lecturers in teaching only roles and it is they that often ensure and promote the quality of the teaching activity. To suggest that every good teacher is also a good researcher is very far from reality and the individual who fulfils both roles well is a rare animal. As suggested by the responder, there is often a tension on the competing demands on a lecturer's finite time, and research, the 'sexy' end, often wins. Equally, at UG and at PGT level, an holistic and rounded delivery is likely to require a greater breadth and lesser depth than worthy research will inevitably be at. Yet too often, research active individuals warp subject delivery to focus on their interests and this can also be seen at the programme level, with the introduction of modules that owe more to individual’s interests than a balanced programme’s needs. For too long we have espoused ‘research lead teaching’ when actually, the research should have been teaching lead; and the teaching should have been industry lead.
'Led'. 'Lead' is present tense (or a toxic heavy metal). The past tense form of the verb 'lead' is 'led'. Sorry, but I couldn't let this pass in a higher education forum. You make a good point though.
Obviously I disagree, Rich. You're right to say that plenty of good teaching is done by academics employed on teaching-focused contracts -- especially early career Teaching Fellows and the like. The point of my piece is that in order to teach well these people actually *are* doing research. They're just not being paid properly for it. It sounds like you come from a natural-science background (it's the "industry-led" bit that makes me think that!) so perhaps there are some relevant differences here, but I'd be willing to bet that knowledge and techniques are always changing, even in the sciences. Keeping up with those changes, and being part of that conversation, is a matter of research.
"decide to grant each track ( teach and or research ) it’s own due prominence" Ay, there's the rub... For researchers there *is* a well-defined track, usually based on metrics connected to outputs and REF. These metrics are terribly imperfect, but they are at least seen as more objective, and pretty much sector-wide. Comparison between candidates is so much easier. I have issues with this approach, but that's not this this discussion. But for teaching jobs, it's different. There are metrics, but they are not hugely reliable and depend on a huge number of external factors, often not entirely in your control. And they often vary between institutions. Module feedback especially is especially unreliable, and disadvantages those who are given topics to cover that may not be glamorous or sexy, but necessary . And of course institutions weasel their way through this by including a need for "scholarship" with teaching contracts, insinuating the need for at least some research activity, without actually properly supporting it.
Tom, I would suspect that we are not as far apart in our thinking as might first appear. I agree that good teaching skills and techniques are learnt (researched and empirically developed) as well as honed in practice. Equally, I am unconvinced that we can lecture effectively without a deep understanding of our subject, particularly if we enhance our delivery through elicitation or similar techniques. You are correct in identifying that I am from the Science domain (School of Engineering), and that I consider that our output should be more vocationally focused. (Though this is not a universally held view, even within my own ranks.) This inevitably (and potentially correctly) puts distance between our approaches towards programme structure and content. I would clarify that I do not see industry, teaching or research as the lead in directing our focus, but rather that they are a virtuous circle, each supporting the other two in their activities. It is clear that we whilst we should be providing graduates that meet our industries’ requirements, we should also be shaping industrial future through our research activity. The triad’s amalgam is not fully formed, but a lead already exists from within the health professions. Thanks for your thought provoking article that has raised some great points and stimulated others in the comments above. (I suspect, some, keenly felt).
The vast majority of teaching only roles require a PhD. It’s all well and good saying that each track can be given equal value but most people who do a PhD want to do research, at least for some of the time. So by putting them on a teaching only track, you are cutting them off from something they trained to do and joined academia to do. Is that fair? That’s leaving aside that teaching only posts are seen as lower status in the sector and offer fewer opportunities for progression and promotion.
Some of these comments seem to be slipping into the 'teaching vs research' and 'teaching-track vs research-track' debate. But the main point the author of the article seems to me to be making is that, although we tend reflexively to think in terms of 'research equals research for publication', research is also necessary for good teaching, and this tends to get lost under the label of 'teaching preparation'. To teach well, one needs to think carefully about four things: what knowledge you should convey to your students, what skills your students need to develop, how best to convey that knowledge, and how best to develop those skills. The first definitely (and the others arguably) require research. I could, when writing lectures and designing tutorials/seminars for my first year of teaching a particular topic, simply take over my predecessor's materials, or merely summarise what is said in a textbook; and I could simply repeat the same, or much the same, year after year. Instead, when preparing materials for the first time, I research it to form my own view of the topic-- more up-to-date than the textbook or previous materials, and checking them for errors, but also, which is far more difficult, grappling with issues which are obviously odd but have merely been glossed over by the textbook or previous materials. This takes a huge amount of time and thought; it is serious research. And then every year thereafter, I not only have to update, but there will also be issues which I was not previously able to analyse clearly enough-- or new oddities which have become apparent, sometimes due to students asking good fundamental questions-- so every year thereafter revising my materials still takes a huge amount of time. Furthermore, all of the above applies whether or not the particular topic is one on which I research for publication. If it is not a topic on which I research for publication, I need to make sure my knowledge is sufficiently comprehensive. If it is a topic on which I research for publication-- writing a really good lecture for undergraduates is in one way more challenging than writing a good academic article. With the latter, one can presume the reader has a lot of existing knowledge and merely allude to and rely on that. With the former, you can't; and striving to explain things very clearly, from the bottom up, can expose problems glossed over in academics' discourse with each other. In my experience, though, university 'work allocation models' allow ridiculously small amounts of time for 'teaching preparation'. People can hardly be blamed for doing what this system encourages or even forces them to do-- take over your predecessor's materials or merely summarise what is said in a textbook, and repeat the same year after year, only updating on the basis of what has changed in the textbook. And this applies to teaching-only as well as research-and-teaching staff; the same ridiculously small allocation of time for 'teaching preparation' applies to both. I can think of several famous instances in which academics' lectures to undergraduates were published in book form and are still viewed as important works in their discipline-- because they represented serious fundamental research/thinking about the subject. Unfortunately, the only examples I can think of were in the 19th century. The importance of 'research for teaching' needs to be re-emphasised, for the benefit of teachers and researchers and students.

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