Do academics like Anthony Giddens neglect their students? Brian Brivati refutes the charge.
The recent article and exchange of letters in The Guardian about whether or not Anthony Giddens, professor of sociology at Cambridge University, spends enough time with his students was profoundly depressing. Ros Coward, who wrote the original column, argued that academics' lives are governed by the research assessment exercise and that we spend all our time at conferences.
It was depressing because it offered nothing constructive about how to improve the exercise and chose a very poor candidate for attack. What was most depressing was that it set out to refute the link between research and teaching, seeing the two as mutually exclusive. The argument that there is no positive link between research and its dissemination and the quality of student teaching is wrong.
Research improves the quality of your teaching in your own institution. People who grumble about research are generally those who have given the same lecture for the past 25 years - with the same jokes. Those who do not grumble often have equally heavy teaching loads but still manage to squeeze in research time and generally update their courses and reading lists regularly as a reflection of this work. The process of research is also the process of personal intellectual renewal and students can tell when it is alive and when it has long since died.
Research makes a global contribution to a discipline and in turn improves teaching and adds to people's own process of renewal. This is particularly the case with conferences.
Academics, like Giddens, who also make public interventions extend this further. They are, to put it at its most pompous, fulfilling their obligations as public intellectuals whose salaries are paid not by students but out of general taxation. The more radical their opinions, the greater the vindication of the free academy. The idea that such interventions are somehow not part of their role is a contradiction of the notion that the university has a proactive role in contemporary society.
Rather than censuring an academic such as Giddens for spending too much time away from base, we should praise him for raising the level of awareness and interest in his discipline. The consequences of keeping leading academics within the confines of home universities would be to take their voices out of the debate on education and in this political situation would amount to a death-wish.
If the attacks on Giddens are followed to their logical conclusion, we are saying that the university should be an insular institution dedicated to the care and progress of its own community. We are saying that anything else might jeopardise the quality of teaching or somehow question the dignity of the place. This is hogwash. A university, and the intellectuals who staff it, are not separate from "real life", they are a part of it. Their debates and arguments are not conducted simply for the beauty of the logic or the elegance of the construction. They are engaged with the wider community and composed of topics relating to the state and health of that community. It is not a luxury or a privilege when an academic is asked to speak to an outside audience, it is a responsibility. The role of the public intellectual is consistently debased in our society and the quality of our public debate is seriously undermined because of it.
But the best defence of Giddens is his enthusiasm and his love of his subject. In this anti-intellectual, anti-learning culture anyone who puts forward with vigour and intelligence the fruits of her or his research needs to be nurtured and supported. Giddens's undergraduates are a wide congregation. To reduce this congregation to a set of undergraduates at Cambridge would be a travesty of what a university should be.
Brian Brivati is lecturer in history, University of Kingston.