Teaching – the overlooked research outlet

Monographs, conferences and keynotes are vital elements of the modern scholarly world, but they are by no means the only, let alone the best, ways to spread ideas and insights. As Tara Brabazon notes, teaching can be a powerful, and inspiring, method of disseminating findings

September 18, 2008

Once upon a time, university staff and postgraduate students worked and studied in an optimistic, vibrant and challenging environment. Every project was well funded. Doctoral candidates were assigned nurturing, mentoring and compassionate supervisors, and each completed thesis found a publisher.

This is a lovely story – obviously a fairy tale – but it captures the hopes that hide behind words and phrases such as “research culture” and “dissemination”. Just as we never hear about the post-fairytale divorce rate after the glamorous wedding, neither do we monitor what happens to our masters and doctoral scholars – beyond happy anecdotes and horror stories – when the completion is logged with registry and the manuscript deposited in the library.

Most PhDs are not published. There is a reason. They are not written to be published. They are constructed to slot within precise guidelines dictated by the university and the international scholarly environment. They are written to be assessed, not read.

Postgraduate research is a particular genre of writing unlike any other. Because of this artificiality, doctorates are not a strong foundation on which to build a first book. It is a tough truth for postgraduates to realise that a doctoral thesis is not only distinct from a scholarly monograph in terms of genre and structure but is also written at a lower level than required by publishers. Too many of us have wasted too much time wedded to our PhDs rather than moving to the next project, the next book, the next big idea or, indeed, to considering alternative methods and modes of dissemination.

I feel responsible – I am responsible – for doing something about the sad tale of postgraduate publication of research and how we can improve both the aspiration and reality of the first-book fairy tale that never reaches the altar, let alone the honeymoon.

It is necessary for our postgraduates and the wider academic community to think more expansively about the context and meaning of dissemination for all university research. We are focused on the “high-impact” journals, the “good” publisher, the “important” conference and the “significant” keynote speech.

The core issue masked by such language is clear: do we want to influence academics like us, or is there value in testing, extending and transgressing the limits of our professional identity, taking risks and speaking and writing with, to and for people who do not attend the same seminars, read the same books or monitor the same Google Alerts?

These are significant questions. I am a research professor at a university and, like many research professors who wear lipstick, a skirt and high heels, I spend my life teaching. It is no hardship. It offers dissemination opportunities on a daily basis. Those who do teach, rather than simply talk about it, know the benefits that students give us. They freshen our thinking, challenge us to be clear in our definitions and are honest in their confusion rather than frightened to admit weakness. Students teach us intellectual respect, curiosity and inquisitiveness. Ernest Boyer captured the daily complexities and challenges of this wider environment of teaching and learning in Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate.

He wanted to “break out of the tired old teaching versus research debate … and define, in more creative ways, what it means to be a scholar”. He was passionate and unequivocal in his argument. His project to expand the parameters of effective scholarship is even more important in our post-RAE future.

Yet Boyer’s polarised map of academic life has watermarked our institutional structures and policies. While phrases such as “teaching-led research” and “research-led teaching” attempt to bridge the chasm, teaching is invisible when moving through most checklists of research dissemination for grants and RAE-style assessments.

That is why so many of our doctoral students believe they have “failed” to produce quality scholarship if a monograph is not the end result of their candidature. Even teaching-led research required a distinct and separate section in the last RAE guidelines, as if it is a strange and problematic form of scholarship.

Think about the scale of teaching commitments throughout our career. Most of us have taught many thousands of students. Now think about conferences: how often have we seen a scattering of post-buffet delegates delicately snoozing though the wash of PowerPoint?

Yet the focus of our research dissemination is on keynotes and conferences, not lectures and curriculum. There is also much attention from academics in wooing publishers and editors. But who is reading and citing these journals that few libraries can now afford? Who reads the monographs that publishers insist on releasing in hardback for a price of £50, £70 or £110?

Certainly a few spouses and friends are given free copies and offprints to flick through, but the scale of audience and readership through these publications needs to be addressed with some honesty. Bibliometrics, with its precise determination of rankings and citations, is not a subtle instrument to grasp the transformations of the publishing industry and the radically – and rapidly – changing environment of online refereed publications.

There is a reason for my thoughts about research and readers, teachers and teaching. I have met many inspirational scholars throughout my life. One of the most extraordinary is Graeme Turner. Currently professor of cultural studies at the University of Queensland, he runs an impressive research centre and possesses the CV of a man who could hover above our institutions as an aloof and disconnected gentleman scholar.

But throughout his career he has not only been a blisteringly successful supervisor but one of those undergraduate teachers whom students follow around the campus. He is also outrageously funny, honest and deeply compassionate. I first met Turner when I was 25 years old, employed in a low-level contract-teaching post in a city that brands itself as “the beef capital of Australia.” Having just returned from New Zealand and passed my doctorate, I was disoriented and needed – quite desperately – some leadership and direction.

What was the next step? I had no idea. But during a one-day seminar at this regional university, he was flown in as the “above-the-title” celebrity academic to add credibility to the event.

I delivered a 30-minute presentation on Julie Burchill, popular culture and writing. Turner saw something in that speech and guided me through a career, intervening at crossroad moments. He seemed to always know when they were coming.

His support for a young and inexperienced scholar made a profound difference to my life and to thousands of other young academics. He has said and written many wise words.

But it was his understanding of the place of a PhD in an academic’s career that influenced me as I faced the crucial early crossroads: “The PhD should be the worst research project you’ll ever do. If it’s not – that’s a problem. You start from the doctorate. You don’t finish there.” He always categorised it as an apprenticeship into academic life, not the great life work.

Dissemination matters to Turner. He has taught, he has supervised, he has written in a range of modes and media. Even though it is no surprise, it is still extraordinary that Turner has just been appointed to the Australian Prime Minister’s Science, Engineering and Innovation Council (PMSEIC).

He is the only humanities scholar on the council, and only the second since it was formed in 1989. As a professor of cultural studies, Turner has not only improved the lives of thousands of academics and students through his expansive definition of “scholarship”, but is transforming the position of the humanities in Australia. There are few of his number in the world.

The lesson of Turner’s commitment is that clarity, passion, rigour and an expansive intellect can make a difference. He never isolated himself from student or staff, and he provides an example to the postgraduates we are supervising to remember the many ways in which to conduct and disseminate research.

Let’s be clear: I am not against the publication of monographs and refereed articles. These are bedrock activities of scholarship. We all know – although few talk about it – that research-inactive academics (which can be conservatively defined as publishing less than two refereed articles a year) are present in variable numbers throughout our departments and schools.

Not only are their career and promotion opportunities hampered, but they are not rejuvenating and creating new knowledge to explore and test within their teaching. The major difference between a teacher in further and higher education is that the latter writes refereed scholarship. My view – and yes, it does get me into trouble – is that being research-active is not an “opt-in” or “opt-out” function of academic life. Research activity is part of the definition of being a scholar.

But the tragedy is that teaching is so often labelled by researchers in our midst as inconvenient, drudgery and lower-level labour. Nearly a year ago I was in a research meeting with a suite of fiftysomething male academics. Having seen me run in with a box of papers, a poster of Jean Baudrillard, an iPod ghetto blaster and a cricket bat (don’t ask) and looking like a melted candle after teaching for two hours, one fiftysomething said with a sympathetic smile but relieved shake of the head: “I haven’t taught in ten years.”

Do we applaud at this point? Is this the definition of a successful academic: they have disconnected from teaching since Tony Blair’s first term in office, when Oasis were still releasing hit singles? While I am critical of academics who hide behind teaching to justify not writing refereed scholarship, I am similarly very disturbed by scholars who walk away from teaching as if it is a toilet in need of cleaning.

Until teaching is respected beyond the status of housework and teaching-led research does not require a special (sealed?) section in RAE-style regulations, then fewer and fewer Graeme Turners will emerge in our institutions and have the courage to arch beyond them.

Tara Brabazon is professor of media studies, University of Brighton.

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