Leader: We need those who can teach

G.B. Shaw's infamous maxim derided pedagogy as a job for the second-rate. It's a shame the academy often acts as if it agrees.

January 31, 2008

Whatever delights George Bernard Shaw bestowed to posterity, his mean-spirited maxim "He who can does; he who cannot, teaches" was one we could have done without. Unfortunately, it is a sentiment that is widely shared in Britain's universities. Research commands the cash and the kudos. Those tagged with that horrible hyphenation teaching-only are dismissed as second-rate, inexpert, burnt out. Yet there are many more of them than ever; "teaching-onlys" now account for a quarter of academic staff.

It is not a trend that has been universally applauded. Their greater numbers are "calling into question the nature of higher education". Which means, to be precise: can they be considered academics in the true sense of the word if they only teach and their research, if any, is confined to "scholarly activity"? Just over half of academics teach and research. The remainder, unencumbered by teaching responsibilities, are free to concentrate solely on research. Oddly, their status is rarely questioned. If the point of universities is the expansion and dissemination of knowledge, why is it that only the absence of the former is suspect? Is it the cash and the kudos?

The effects that research has on teaching, and vice versa, are not clear. Most academics believe cross-pollination is beneficial. Students, when asked, often say tutors are more engaged and up to date if they are involved in researching what they teach. Academics have found that their research can benefit with exposure to - and occasionally the involvement of - undergraduates. Universities with a stellar research reputation are in no doubt that there is a connection: feel the five-stars and ogle our Nobels, they coo to prospective students. But stardust is easy to brush off when the bill for the privilege is a few thousand pounds. Students also say they find research-obsessed academics remote, their studies irrelevant and their teaching, such as it is, lacklustre or entirely absent.

&#8220There is a reason why references to Socrates and Jesus usually avoid the label "teaching-only", and it isn't because either chose to perish rather than publish”

There is opportunity in this disillusion. Private outfits are starting to offer pedagogically sound, research-lite degrees. Certain UK universities are emulating liberal collegiate institutions in the US that stress cosy seminars and impressive staff-to-student ratios. Even universities with enviable research records have decided that it might be wise to reward those who teach. If the jury is still out on the exact interaction between teaching and research, the market has already made up its mind. Investment in teaching is on the rise.

Its stock among many in academe, however, remains depressed. What should alarm is not the proportion of staff devoted to teaching but pedagogy's lowly status in UK universities. This is despite, and arguably sometimes because of, efforts to reinvigorate it. Consider the inane bullet-point jargon of many educational professionals, the apallingly crude reclassification of the research-redundant as "teachers", the well-intentioned but patronising initiatives that seek to elevate but succeed only in relegating a vocation that should need no condescension. They drive home the message that teaching is a bore and a chore. And who on earth came up with that ugly, inaccurate, deflating designation? There is a reason why references to Socrates and Jesus usually avoid the label "teaching-only", and it isn't because either chose to perish rather than publish.

If the culinary arts had evolved at the same rate as teaching, according to the writer Sydney Smith, we would still be eating soup with our hands. Teaching is often frustrating, galling and unrewarding. It cannot compete with the prizes that tempt researchers. But teaching, as students and parents remind universities, is an imperative. To dismiss those who master and practise it as second-order academics is as ignorant as it is foolish.


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