The following is a slightly edited version of a short talk reflecting on my own experience of the teaching-research nexus in higher education that I was asked to present as part of an introduction to a session of the Learned Societies and Subject Associations on the subject at the British Academy in November 2017.
I have been asked this afternoon to say a few words about the relation between teaching and research within my own academic practice. If aspects of my description seem familiar to you, perhaps they represent some distinctive characteristics of a teaching-research nexus within the humanities or social sciences more generally, although I make no presumption that my own experiences are representative.
My own practice of research has always been interdisciplinary. I studied Philosophy and Literature, undertook doctoral research on literature in a philosophy department and postdoctoral work on education in a literature department. There is often an assumption that advanced research leads to increasing specialization but it may be within our subjects that it can also involve broader reflection upon central debates in the discipline, conceptualizing the discipline itself, and the wider institutional forms of research and teaching we inhabit. Increasingly, my own scholarship draws on concepts, texts and authors from other disciplines in order to do this, in a way recently characterized as transdisciplinary. This often leads to the production and publication of research that, although it fits well within the intellectual community of the departments I have worked in, tends to fall on the margins or even outside of my subject area in terms of the Research Excellence Framework.
As I’ve pursued my own research, I’ve moved between departments in a way that mirrors the kind of research I do but raises problems for the kind of publications I can submit at subject-level to the REF. This situation can also be exacerbated by external pressures on higher education that may impact particularly heavily on departments within the humanities and social sciences, leading to redundancies, amalgamations or closures and forcing early career researchers in particular to move between departments as they seek more stable working conditions. Early in my career, I was working in a Philosophy department whose undergraduate programme was closed; following that I chose to move to a Literature department in the hope of ensuring a more stable career.
In addition, the most rigorous research in my chosen field tended to be undertaken within well regarded departments outside of more prestigious research-intensive institutions, and it is to such places I moved as I pursued doctoral and postdoctoral research. I mention this because, as a consequence, there also tends to be much less of a continuity between what I research and what I teach. Indeed, my teaching, most obviously at undergraduate level, is often narrower and more disciplinarily specialized than my research.
It is in this context that I want to speak about my research being as informed by my experience of teaching in a more teaching-intensive institution, as my teaching has been informed by the nature of my research. Outside of the few classes I teach directly connected to my research, the idea that excellent teaching is informed by research, as is usually assumed, makes more sense for me in an indirect way, where critical reflection on the subject has lead me to rethink the form rather than the content of my teaching. I have found that how I teach and what I teach continues to change and develop in response not only to external pressures towards making graduates, most of whom will not undertake higher study within this discipline, more employable, but more importantly to an internal, academic desire to make what I teach – and as a consequence, what I research – engaging, significant, coherent, relevant and inspiring to students for whom this may not always be self-evident and whose cultural experiences, if I wish to draw on them in class, are often distinct from my own.
I have found my teaching evolving away from a concern with coverage of the discipline and its history (that usually only connects to the concerns of the students in a superficial way, as an after-though), to the reconstruction of my material, my classes, my assessment and my use of technology in such a way that it attempts to proceed from their experience as a starting point and motivation for our shared learning, often as a result calling into question the constitutions and concerns of the subject. Similarly, while I design my seminars and assessments to facilitate student research, I want to preserve a pedagogic space in which students have the opportunity to narrate, articulate or teach their social experience to our academic community. Teaching and learning in this way has introduced perspectives and insights that have informed and motivated not only my subsequent teaching but also my research. In an era of increasing concern with access to, and the diversity of, higher education, it is worth remembering that, historically, it is from these kinds of inter- or transdisciplinary departments and these kinds of more diverse, teaching-intensive institutions that experimental and innovative new subject areas of research have emerged in the humanities and social sciences, partly in response to the needs and experiences of those who are learning.
There are narrower economic reasons for severing the practical relation between research and teaching that, I believe, should be resisted for academic reasons, not least simply ensuring we have thoughtful, happy and motivated lecturers and students. But I sometimes worry, too, that the consensus on the excellence of research-led teaching and learning may have emerged because established researchers within research-intensive universities, who have a greater opportunity to write and publish research, have endorsed a viewpoint on the teaching-research nexus that largely reflects their own academic situation and is promoted in public, marketing and policy discourse by institutions for self-interested rather than sound pedagogic reasons. I don’t know to what extent my own academic experience and practice are familiar or unusual but the further they have lead me from the mainstream of disciplinary and institutional types of research the further they have lead me to rethink the seeming self-evidence of this consensus.