Not prolific in research, but not lazy either: meet the ‘academic artisans’

Role of lecturers who play a key part in teaching and administration should get more recognition, according to study

December 21, 2015
Businesswoman working at cluttered desk

Lecturers are typically defined by their research profile or by their focus on teaching. But what about those scholars who do not fit into either category?

These are the “academic artisans”, a new study argues: lecturers who are not highly productive researchers but, far from being lazy or deficient, are often the individuals who keep universities ticking over.

They may help to do this by, say, taking on a larger share of undergraduate teaching and administration, which allows other academics to concentrate on research.

Angela Brew, professorial fellow in the Learning and Teaching Centre of Sydney’s Macquarie University, told the conference of the Society for Research into Higher Education that the important role played by “artisans” should be given more recognition in the academy.

Working with David Boud of Deakin University, Karin Crawford of the University of Lincoln, and Lisa Lucas of the University of Bristol, Professor Brew surveyed 2,131 academics in the UK and Australia about their working practices.

They found that a significant number of respondents who considered themselves to be research-active or were in research teams were not actually particularly productive in terms of publications; and that this group spent an average of five additional hours a week teaching compared with more prolific researchers.

In interviews, it emerged that many academics who did not publish a lot also took on important administrative tasks, such as coordinating undergraduate courses, overseeing teaching at satellite campuses and chairing committees.

Professor Brew argued that this group of “artisans” was clearly distinct from teaching-only academics by virtue of the range of tasks they performed, and said that those who suggested that they were “lazy, unqualified or lacking the necessary skills to succeed” were wrong.

“We are suggesting that they are not deficient: they are actually holding the university together, they are actually facilitating research by not taking part in it,” Professor Brew said. “Instead, they are taking a larger share of undergraduate teaching and taking a greater role in organising teaching and the way research happens.

“They make the university function more effectively.”

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Print headline: ‘Artisans’ are the catalysts for research

Reader's comments (2)

This is straw manism. 1) Ive never heard any of these teaching centric colleagues referred to as lazy. 2) Ive also never seen an instance where these supposed artisans do more teaching. Given the academic teaching term usually rolls for 6 months, what are these 'artisans' doing for the rest of the year? 3) the best researchers, across the board, tend to be those that also do the most administration. This all seems like an exercise in making non-research 'academics' feel better about themselves.
In reply to Dee Es I would say that being a successful researcher involves having a great deal of time to devote to gathering data, analysing it and writing it up. It might be possible to combine this with administration and giving time to your Tutees at a Russell Group University but for most of us at new Universities our teaching loads and student numbers make it very difficult. As for what people are doing for 'the other six months' - well if you are teaching a vocational course like social work or nursing- you are supervising students on their placements. Lecturers on Vocational course departments have contact with students every week of the year. Our courses don't stop for 6 months. We also have to constantly liaise with employers who are our stakeholders, respond to changes in professional regulation and provide CPD courses outside normal term time. People can only be in one place doing one task at a time and everyone is better at some tasks than others. This is solved in most fields by division of labour and specialisation. You don't expect your fishmonger to have been out on a trawler all night catching all the fish and seafood s/he is selling. In fact if this was what happened the range of seafood s/he would offer would be pretty limited. Why should you expect someone to be an expert researcher, a good teacher, a negotiator, an administrator and a good provider of pastoral support? Research is a job which requires patience, precise technical skills and an ability to focus on data. Teaching students requires an ability to communicate to a wide non specialist audience. Running a department or team requires skills in coaching and mentoring. Working with employers requires diplomacy and negotiation skills. There are few people who have all these qualities and fewer still who could pay equal attention to them all at the same time. For many academics at new Universities, including myself, writing textbooks is a much more viable and fruitful use of our scholarly time. There is the assurance, through a contract that what we are writing has a market and is not going to be rejected after we have submitted it. There is also the help from an editor in proofreading the work and making it ready for publication. It also plays to our strengths in communication and the satisfaction that it will inform and educate a large number of people rather than a tiny or possibly non- existent audience. As someone who came into academia from the outside world the economics of writing for and publishing in journals are a complete mystery to me. Much of the scholarship in prized journals is of very little interest to anyone in wider society and reading it is prohibitively expensive.

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