The research and teaching link: worth strengthening, not severing

Amidst a spectrum of positions on the relationship (or lack thereof) between research and teaching, I hold that research and teaching are integrally connected forms of academic labour: they drive, inform, and improve each other. The exact character and extent of the relationship between research and teaching has become a point for heated debate, of late: the emergence of the “teaching-stream” university model – in which courses and programs are taught by instructors who do no research – is a recent result of this debate, and I would suggest it is also a deeply troubling symptom of the neoliberal hegemony under which the modern university is increasingly a transnational corporation, and decreasingly an institution of public service and public interest.

Along with private research endowments and the continuing transfer of teaching labour to contingent academics, the “teaching stream” university model represents a further step in the corporatization of the university (of which Bill Readings warned in his 1996 book The University in Ruins), in no small part because of the instrumental rationalizations given to justify this model: the appeals to efficiency, performance indicators, and other narrowly economistic measurements that expose the neoliberal ideology driving the model – an ideology that is essentially hostile to and fearful of informed and reasoned critique.

To respond to the diminished public funding of higher education by proposing “teaching stream” restructuring, or related restructuring models1 (many of which – like the administrative push for MOOCs that outsource course production to private firms like Coursera – further the university’s corporatization), is not to innovate authoritative, critical, and accessible education, but instead serves only to legitimize the neoliberal pinch.

The answer to accelerated privatization is not more privatization.

The teaching-stream university model emerges not only amidst the political economy of austerity (which is, in any case, a social engineering program that uses the bottom line as both carrot and stick) but also amidst the perceived uncertainty, within the modern university, over how exactly research and teaching relate, or don’t, in the first place.

Research is a defining feature of the modern university, one that goes hand in hand with teaching.2 I insist on the integral interdependence of research and teaching, which – while it may stand in need of empirical quantification – has been written about by experts on academic freedom (see Horn), historians of the university institution (see Keefer), social scientists of university culture (see Appadurai), and critical theorists of postmodernity and globalization. A notable articulation of the close relationship between research and teaching appears in Jean-François Lyotard’s seminal study of postmodernity, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Anticipating more recent work by Appadurai on the “research imagination,” Lyotard affects a kind of etic perspective to investigate and theorize the institutional structures, discourses, and “language games” of the modern university that “legitimize” its social authority and capital. In the process, he discusses the didactic and dialectical intimacy of research and teaching:

It should be evident that research appeals to teaching as its necessary complement: the scientist needs an addressee who can in turn become the sender; he needs a partner. Otherwise, the verification of his statements would be impossible, since the non renewal of the requisite skills would eventually bring an end to the necessary, contradictory debate. Not only the truth of a scientist’s statement, but also his competence, is at stake in that debate. One’s competence is never an accomplished fact. It depends on whether or not the statement proposed is considered by one’s peers to be worth discussion in a sequence of argumentation and refutation. The truth of the statement and the competence of its sender are thus subject to the collective approval of a group of persons who are competent on an equal basis. Equals are needed and must be created. […]
you teach what you know: such is the expert. But as the student (the addressee of the didactic process) improves his skills, the expert can confide to him what he does not know but is trying to learn (at least if the expert is also involved in research). In this way, the student is introduced to the dialectics of research, or the game of producing scientific knowledge. (24-25, my emphases)

Perhaps the most obvious concrete example of what Lyotard describes here is the faculty supervision of graduate studies. The faculty member and graduate student negotiate a program of study and project of research in which the student works more or less independently, but in close consultation with the supervising faculty member. The outcome of the student’s labour in this dynamic, which is fundamentally a teaching and learning dynamic, is often publishable research. But the relationship between research and teaching occurs in the undergraduate context as well: I am presently reviewing the proofs of a soon-to-be-published study of globalized media, which the author introduces as a study based on previous lectures given to undergraduate students. Many academic books take shape in this way, and serve variously as textbooks for undergraduate study, or as more specialized monographs for graduate or expert research, or even sometimes as both.

I can think of numerous examples of Lyotard’s didactic and dialectical interdependence between research and teaching in my own academic work. I teach university courses that are grounded in my research interests, courses that, in turn, further develop and deepen these interests. For one recent example, a research article I published in 2009 has been reprinted in a new Oxford UP anthology on television studies. The book’s title, The Television Reader, signals its teaching orientation as a collection of studies selected to represent the state of research in a given field, and designed to introduce students to the field.

My first three peer-reviewed publications were papers produced in the course of graduate studies. That is, they began as essays undertaken in the context of teaching and learning – as assignments I completed for graduate courses – but thereafter (and with the supportive mentorship of the various course professors) I revised them and submitted them to refereed research journals, which subsequently accepted them for publication. As a university teacher, I have since had the pleasure to receive research essays by graduate and undergraduate students that I have thought worthy of refereed publication, and have offered mentorship, in turn, to these students to help their work find such publication. The courses I teach are correspondingly grounded in the learning and research I have undertaken on subjects of interest. For instance, having studied Afro-Futurist music in the course of doctoral research, and subsequently published some of this research, I have made a unit on Afro-Futurist music a cornerstone of courses I have taught on DJ Culture and on Black Atlantic literature and culture.

However, one of the most concrete materializations of the link between my research and teaching reversed that traditional flow from expertise to curriculum – it started with teaching work that led to research work, culminating in a 2009 article for University of Toronto Quarterly, a special issue on discourses of security in Canada. That article, “Come on back to the war,” analyzes the recurring and prevalent stereotyping and vilification of “the German” in Canadian popular culture, in order to argue that this largely unquestioned pop cultural trope constructs Canadian nationalism as a nationalism grounded in war – and, ironically, reproduces in Canada the kinds of nationalist structures of feeling that had previously legitimized in Germany the Nazi-fuelled xenophobia and genocide against which the Allies ostensibly fought in the first place.

As the essay itself recounts, its argument took shape as I was in the process of designing curriculum about Canadian popular culture for German graduate students, when I taught at the University of Bonn in 2006-07. Trying to identify Canadian cultural texts that are popular outside Canada and that would interest German students, I became quickly sensitized to texts that included stereotypical or vilified images of German citizens. And almost as quickly I became aware that there are lots of such images, from Anne of Green Gables to 22 Minutes. Such a distinct pattern emerged that I included it as a subject in my Bonn course on Canadian pop culture. During my time in Germany I was invited to give talks at numerous conferences, and at the universities of Bremen and Marburg I presented preliminary versions of a talk on this subject that formed the basis of the paper eventually published.

The talk at Bremen produced a memorable teaching moment for presenter and audience alike. The audience, mostly twenty- and thirty-something students, were surprised by this pattern of representations and led to critically reflect on their assumptions and understandings of Canada. For my part, I was surprised by how easily this subject led the audience members to comment on their own personal relationships to and understandings of Germany’s wartime history, with which many expressed discomfort and which some disavowed, born into a tragic and atrocious legacy not of their choosing.

When I gave the talk at Marburg, I was unaware the audience included representatives of Canada’s embassy in Germany. They expressed genuine concern over the subject – and particularly over the possibility I might publish on it. Rather ironically, that audience for my talk – itself a research product and, delivered as lecture, a practice of teaching – included my own doctoral supervisor (whom I had invited to give a talk at Bonn). He had excellent insights on the subject to share – with an equal he had helped to create.

Research and teaching, then, work together as complementary practices in what we might describe as the larger scenes of producing knowledge and of mobilizing it. They drive and inform each other, and in their potential segregation, their division into relatively private domains of their own, we must recognize only a localized symptom of the larger privatizing forces at work to reshape institutions of public service and public interest increasingly on a corporate model – which is to say a fundamentally undemocratic and exclusively profit-motivated model. Surely the collapse of democracy and the exclusive priority of profit are the ends of neither productive research nor effective teaching.

Notes

1. In the context of models of the corporatization of the university, Terry Anderson and Rory McGreal’s (2012) argument for a “no-frills” university warrants a detailed critique that it is beyond the scope of this essay to hazard. The “no-frills university model” calls for some restructuring that academics might welcome – e.g. the thinning of swollen senior administrative ranks – but also for some that we might not – e.g. dispensing with research for its purported irrelevance to teaching. Problematically, the “no-frills university” seems more easily (if unintentionally) aligned with the neoliberal corporatization of the university than with the socially progressive ethos of open higher learning that is Athabasca U’s mission, and that is eloquently expressed in Greville Rumble’s 2007 article “Social justice, economics, and distance education.”

2. Does research go hand in hand with teaching – or hand over fist? The modern university everywhere promotes research over and sometimes even against teaching. Research is what most academics go into the profession to do, while teaching is widely seen as a duty; academics speak of “teaching load,” never of “research load.” Leave from teaching duties to pursue research is called “release time.” I am oversimplifying matters, but I would be surprised to field any disagreement on this basic observation about university culture, which itself arguably has done much to facilitate the traction now enjoyed by “teaching-stream” university models.)

Works Cited

Anderson, Terry and Rory McGreal. “Disruptive Pedagogies and Technologies in Universities.” Educational Technology and Society 15.4 (2012): 380-89.

Appadurai, Arjun. “Grassroots Globalization and the Research Imagination.” Public Culture 12.1 (2000): 1-19.

Chapnick, Adam. “The teaching-only stream: Are we headed up a creek without a paddle?” University Affairs 10 Oct. 2012

Horn, Michael. “Students and Academic Freedom in Canada.” Historical Studies in Education 11.1 (1999): 1-32.

Keefer, Michael. Lunar Perspectives: Field Notes from the Culture Wars. Toronto: Anansi, 1996.

Lyotard, Jean-François. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1984.

McCutcheon, Mark A. “‘Come on back to the war’: Germany as the Other National Other in Canadian Popular Literature.” Discourses of Security, Peacekeeping Narratives and the Cultural Imagination in Canada. Spec. issue of University of Toronto Quarterly 78.2 (2009): 764-81.

—. “Downloading Doppelgängers: New Media Anxieties and Transnational Ironies in Battlestar Galactica.” Science Fiction Film and Television 2.1 (2009): 1-24. Rpt. in The Television Reader: Critical Perspectives in Canadian and US Television Studies. Ed. Tanner Mirrlees and Joseph Kispal-Kovacs. Toronto: Oxford UP, 2013.

Readings, Bill. The University in Ruins. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1996.

Rumble, Greville. “Social Justice, Economics and Distance Education.” Open Learning: The Journal of Open and Distance Learning 22.2 (2007): 167-76.

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