Too much information

Cutting-edge researchers aren’t necessarily the best teachers, argues Alan Ryan

August 11, 2011

In a previous existence, I chaired selection committees for research fellowships in all sorts of subjects about which I knew next to nothing. This wasn’t to improve my education but so that I could vouch for the integrity of the proceedings if a candidate challenged our fairness or open-mindedness. I did learn a bit about what was happening at the frontiers of knowledge, and something about current research fashions, too. But the experience fuelled my scepticism about the usual platitudes concerning the connections between research and teaching - not about research, nor about teaching, but about how they connect.

With all the emphasis on “the student experience”, and the assumption that the way for faculty to improve the student experience is overwhelmingly a matter of training ourselves to be better teachers, a bit of realism about how the faculty experience one another and their work mightn’t go amiss. All this, of course, without prejudice to Clark Kerr’s definitive statement of almost half a century ago - sex for the students, parking for the faculty and football for the alumni. How that American prescription might translate into UK terms today is another matter.

Interviewing candidates in some subjects - sexuality in ancient Greece, say - was good fun: animated discussions, everyone piling in, impossible to hold the interview to the allotted half hour. Interviewing candidates in some others - low-temperature experimental physics, say - was less fun: distinguished interviewers would ask a couple of questions about exactly what techniques were being used, receive brief, well-informed and thoughtful answers, and fall silent. Prolonging the discussion beyond 15 minutes was almost impossible.

Why? Most obviously because in the sciences the distance between an undergraduate education and the “frontiers of knowledge” has grown immeasurably in the past half-century. This has all sorts of consequences, of which one is the length of a graduate education in the sciences; four years of doctoral work and two to four years of postdoctoral work seem to be the minimum. Another is that many disciplines are loose federations of sub-specialisms, whose practitioners can talk to each other about the basics of their discipline but whose research is barely intelligible to practitioners of different sub-specialisms. It’s like a modern high-tech hospital; you’d no more let a spinal surgeon loose on a brain tumour than you’d give it to your local car mechanic.

In other disciplines there isn’t a frontier of knowledge in quite the same sense to be reached. The corpus of available Greek literature that has escaped the ravages of time is finite and scholars have just about all of it under their belts. Interpretations of that finite corpus are another matter; they are, if not infinite, certainly indefinitely many. Nor is there any particular technique likely to yield insights that will be definitive, irresistible, part of a cumulative project of explaining everything there is to explain about Greek literature. Physicists may fantasise about finally reaching the “theory of everything”, but it is unimaginable that anyone will produce the definitive way to read Aeschylus.

What follows? A lot of things. One is that the idea that you have to do research to be a good teacher at university level is false, or, more guardedly, full of ambiguities. If your research is all but impossible to explain to your colleagues, the point of struggling to explain it to undergraduates is not obvious - as distinct from giving them some idea where the subject might be heading in five years. The kernel of truth in the usual platitudes is that you shouldn’t be teaching the next generations of students if your entire stock of knowledge is what you learned as an undergraduate and your interest in what you are teaching expired the day you graduated. You need to be animated by some sense of why anyone would either want or need to know what you are trying to teach them, and some sense of what lies beyond your own knowledge. You need to be a decently equipped scholar, but not to be habitually out there on the frontier. The best higher education in the world is provided by the top US liberal arts colleges; they produce a very high proportion of graduate students in the sciences, but the professors who produce those students are not themselves doing the same research they would be doing at MIT or Caltech.

All this, of course, is on the supposition that what’s being taught is distinctively “higher” than what gets taught at secondary school; much, perhaps most, of what happens in higher education isn’t, and rightly. Basic Spanish and Russian are basic Spanish and Russian; the “student experience” of learning languages from scratch, much like the student experience of learning calculus, statistical methods and a whole lot else from scratch, really is something to which devoted, sympathetic and hard-working teachers make all the difference: not deep scholars, not cutting-edge researchers.

You may strike lucky and get someone like the schoolmasters of genius you might have found teaching you Greek or calculus; then your student experience will be something to treasure. More realistically, students have the right to expect that the hard-pressed, underpaid and probably anxious graduate student who is more likely to be taking their language and stats classes will have been taught how to teach, will be carefully mentored, not be given too many classes, and so on.

What that needs, as we all know, is not the Higher Education Academy, not striking new forms of pedagogy, but resources that no UK government has been willing to provide. Princeton can do it; US public education mostly can’t. Liberal arts colleges take it for granted; for-profit schools don’t. Not much to do with the frontiers of knowledge, a lot to do with knowing what the job is and giving people the tools to do it. And making sure the job is attractive enough for them to wish to use the tools when they have them.

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