The beauty of pick'n'mix

Once an advocate of core subject teaching, Susan Bassnett now finds herself endorsing the broad diversity afforded by modern curriculums

June 5, 2008

The other day I was accused by a visiting Chinese academic of inconsistency. Brandishing something I'd written ten years ago, he wanted to know why I had apparently changed my mind on some issues. I replied that if I hadn't changed my mind over a decade, it would be an indication that I hadn't developed my ideas much. But the encounter made me realise that I've changed my mind about a lot of things in the past ten years, perhaps most significantly in how I now think about what and how we teach our students.

Back in the 1990s, I was an advocate of research-led teaching and not enthusiastic about what was often referred to as the supermarket curriculum, the pick-and-mix approach where students would be offered a minimum of courses in their subject area and then could choose whatever else they wanted to study. This, I was told, would be the death of specialist subject knowledge. I was inclined to agree. I went along with the mantra of research-led teaching, which was supposed to be the hallmark of better-quality higher education, even though I was never quite sure what research-led teaching actually was.

Some people are indeed fortunate enough to be able to teach in an area in which they have research interests. But many do not have that privilege. In large units, it may well be possible to match teaching and research, but in smaller units that is impossible because there may well be only a limited number of people to provide the material required. Consequently, many academics spend the summer preparing courses in areas only marginally related to their research and often only just manage to stay ahead of their students. Not that many students are bothered about whether teaching is research led or not, provided it is interesting, engaging and stimulating. Ironically, teaching a course based on your own specialism can be unfulfilling because there is an inevitable knowledge gap and many academics find it hard to come down from the mountain top and accommodate the needs of students who are only just beginning the climb. If you are not a very good communicator, you can be the world's greatest expert and still fail in the lecture or seminar room.

The problem is that we have still not found the right balance between teaching and research. On the one hand, the research assessment exercise has prioritised research at the expense of teaching, while on the other, there are growing demands from students for a better all-round learning experience during their increasingly expensive years at university. I have come to see the idea of research-led teaching as a cop-out, a way for some people to avoid working to improve their teaching by claiming that students are somehow benefiting from their expertise in whatever esoteric area they happen to consider themselves experts.

The truth is that a degree programme that offers students high-level specialist teaching in one specific field belongs to the old days of elitist higher education, when academics imagined their task was to train their successors. Today's students want to make connections. They want to broaden their knowledge beyond the primary subject they have chosen to study, and they want to acquire skills that will serve them once they have graduated. Hence the rise of interdisciplinary programmes and transferable-skills modules. One Classics student enthusiastically told me recently about why he had chosen an option in teaching English as a foreign language, a possibility that would never have occurred to me but which made a lot of sense, in the same way that a science student who took a module in creative writing felt his choice had equipped him with another set of skills.

This surely is the advantage of the supermarket curriculum - students have the benefit of core learning and at the same time they can make choices and set off on different paths of exploration. When I look back to the curriculum that I followed as an undergraduate, I recognise with gratitude that I was taught well and acquired a good in-depth knowledge of my subject, but choice was incredibly limited. The prevailing ethos of the time was that depth was preferable to breadth, and that students should be compelled to take the decreed courses, which left no space for anything else.

Looking back on those narrow old days, I'm amazed that it took me so long to change my mind about the benefits of the kind of broad undergraduate education that today's students can choose.

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