Connecting research and teaching

One of the academic stereotypes often bandied around is that we only have eyes for our own research – teaching is an irritating and burdensome responsibility.  While there may be some out there with that attitude, my experience so far is that many academics enjoy many aspects of teaching.  They find motivation and reward, even delight, in the various interactions they have with students and the intellectual development that they witness.  Prioritising teaching over research can be a function of the great pressure on time during term, but can also arise from a deep-seated sense of the value of teaching, the privileged position you have as a tutor.

We should read sceptically the claims about the almost osmotic transfer of excellent research into excellent teaching.  All too often, such claims have political audiences in mind; they are conditioned by designs for territorial defence – both in ideological and in financial terms – on the part of the ‘elite’ universities and their representatives and advocates.  That’s not, however, to say that there’s no relationship between what we do in the archives (or the lab) and what we do in the classroom.

Revisiting my notes on the nineteenth-century Jewish periodical I studied for my Master’s research over a decade ago has been a bit of a revelation.  I have found delight in rediscovering the material and thinking about what I could do with it now (a couple of articles on Jewish citizenship and Romantically-influenced concepts of the role of religion in the state are taking shape).  Developing a proposal with a colleague  for a project on the architecture and public history of parliament buildings has been energising and exciting.

If that delight in, that energy for doing history ‘shows up’ when you teach, irresistably bubbling up to the surface, surely that’s a valuable connection for students?  So, as we teach, we’re also modelling being historians of different kinds, and encouraging our students to join in the ongoing conversation about the past, its interpretations and meanings.  I hope that my own sense of engagement with being a historian ‘shows up’ and that I can help my students find similar excitement in aspects of their studies.  Whatever course each student’s life ends up taking, knowing what intellectual excitement feels like, being able to look for it and recognise it when you find it, is surely an asset.

Being a researcher doesn’t automatically make you a better teacher.  There are teachers who communicate delight and enthusiasm for their subject without being actively engaged in research.  Where academics are doing both, we should offer more nuanced understandings of the connections and flows between research and teaching - in both directions.

The PhD viva: the five things that made a difference, part II

Back in April I posted shortly after submitting my PhD thesis on the five things that made a difference to me in getting it done.  The viva seemed a distant prospect.  Maybe you have to invest so much in getting the thesis (and yourself) together that however long you have to wait between submission and examination it seems an age away…

In the end, with other things demanding attention, I only had just over a week to prepare.  In retrospect, this was, at least for me, a Good Thing.  Having only two months to wait, I did have the advantage that the material was fresh-ish in my mind.  But only having that week kept me focused on a small number of tasks, which could otherwise have expanded to fill the time available without adding to my preparedness.

The other advantage I had was knowing and working alongside a lot of people with PhDs and PhD students.  Even if you only have access to your supervisor, number one is as simple as: ask!  Ask what it’s like to be examined – and to be an examiner.  Ask what experience they had and what they’d do differently now.  Ask what they expect a candidate to be able to do – and what not.

Which leads me on to number two.  Like any other work of scholarship, there is no such thing as perfection (and there’s extensive scholarship on just that issue).  Remember in particular that a PhD is an apprenticeship in scholarship.  An original contribution to knowledge does not mean a definitive one…

In this sense, the thesis and viva are the final stages in a process, in which you get to demonstrate the critical powers and command of subject material you developed over an extended period of time.  So number three would be: try to enjoy the intellectual exercise that this demonstration entails!  I couldn’t always maintain it, but I tried see the viva as an opportunity to discuss my research area with three eminent historians, in detail.  To test my thinking and get their advice.  Not that that gets rid of nerves, but it probably sends you into the room in a constructive frame of mind, which is another Good Thing.

On a more practical note, number four would be reading the thesis carefully and anticipating questions and concerns.  These can range from the broad (what is the role of x concept or y theory in your work?) to the very specific (on page z you claim…) so flagging and annotating your copy is a useful exercise.  Even if you don’t end up using the copy in the viva (I didn’t), the process makes you engage in a focused way with your work, but from an examiner’s/future reader’s perspective.  It should also help with answering opening questions, for example on the key themes, ideas or findings in the thesis (as well as highlighting corrections you may need to make).

Finally, test then rest.  Doing a mock viva or just fielding a few searching questions can help you feel ready.  You know your research best and being (gently) tested on that knowledge just reminds you of that.  It may also point to a couple of areas for final preparation so is probably best done a day or two ahead of time (but not too far).  Once I’d done that, had a read-through and made some final notes, I found that having to detach was really helpful.  Lunch out with colleagues turned out to be the best way I could have spent the last couple of hours beforehand.  Some discussion was had about the impending viva but not too much, because frankly other people shouldn’t have to talk about your PhD the whole time.  And maybe you shouldn’t either.  Taking a rest from having it at the forefront of your mind can also keep it fresh for the viva – and also give those closest to you a well-earned break…

(Teaching) history in the news

michael-gove-007I had an interesting exchange with Robert Gordon VC, prolific Tweeter and blogger, Professor Ferdinand von Prondzynski, over a post he put up about students’ apparent lack of awareness of a major news story: the French intervention in Mali.  I mentioned that at the start of every workshop with my third year Public History class, the students bring along and present examples of ‘history in the news’ for discussion.

Having filled a whiteboard with all the many ways in which the past is present in the present, the students have found an impressive array of material.  Royal and papal stories were easily idenitifiable.  But they also started to tune into the role of anniversaries, and the calls for commemoration that often accompany them (such as the Bethnal Green Tube disaster of 3rd March 1943), and to pick up on international news (such as the burning of historic manuscripts in Timbuktu) and on history in politics (Michael Gove’s curriculum reform efforts providing a particularly rich seam). 

The students quickly developed a capacity to read the news like historians, rather than consuming it.  They already had the skills to do so, it’s just that they weren’t necessarily being exercised.  Maybe ‘historianship’ was compartmentalised in their minds, something you only access when writing an essay.  Doing public history has, I hope, given them a sense that historianship can be a habitual practice, a mode of thinking that can shape how they see and interact with the world.

‘History in the news’ generates some of the liveliest discussions – maybe because in a sense the students ‘own’ that part of the class.  Having three exchange students has been particularly interesting and has made us all aware of the extent to which our referents and understandings are conditioned by context (and rarely inspected).  Explaining Remembrance Day, Bonfire Night or the Battle of Britain (or indeed, Australia’s Sorry Day or Martin Luther King Day in the United States) has also helped us really get at some of the key issues in the scholarly literature.

‘History in the news’ is only one way of doing it, but making that connection in public history teaching between history as a scholarly activity and history as a mode of thinking and viewing seems to me a priority.  Even if students never end up working in history, they can always be thinking with it.

Policy advisers: out of the top corridor and into the classroom?

1255_University_Corridors02

The university policy adviser is now a fixture in higher education.  At least, there are enough of us that we’re now getting organised.  There’s a large Political Affairs Network under the auspices of UUK that brings together policy, comms, strategy and related staff as well as a smaller, more informal collective of VCs’ policy advisers and exec officers, now named the Lighthouse Group (after Plymouth’s Caroline Chipperfield handed the attendees of the first get-together snazzy lighthouse phone charms).

We work to very different VCs with very different institutional aims, but in practice the similarities are surprisingly many.  One of the main similarities is also the source of one of the main challenges: we work in VCs’ offices.  Maybe not in physical terms that far from where the core business of the university happens, but sometimes it may as well be.  It would be relatively easy to stay in the bubble of the ‘top corridor’ and only interact with other parts of the university when we need a ‘crunchy’ case study for an MP’s briefing note, some figures for a speech or an amenable group of students for a ministerial visit.  That is of course a crude characterisation (all the HE policy advisers I’ve met have genuine dedication to their institutions).  And we do need access to – and the trust of – the executive team to be effective. But I wonder if that’s only half the argument.

Would we be better policy advisers if we were also part of ‘core business’?  More aware of operational realities, more part of the fabric of the place and more able to bridge the corporate and academic ‘levels’, both as advisers and advocates?

Some could get involved in teaching and supervision, building on (or developing) their academic credentials or team teaching to integrate their professional expertise on politics, government, journalism or management.  Others have come by different routes and could contribute to student administration, marketing or recruitment.  Of course, some of these roles would need significant commitment – a genuinely dual or hybrid role – whereas others could be fulfilled on a less formal basis.  And there would need to be mutual benefit and a collaborative approach – no-one would want a tokenistic effort that involved more trouble to accommodate than it was worth.

Personally, the best and most fulfilling thing I have done has been taking on an academic role.  It has clarified my sense of self and opened up a whole new future.  But even if you’re a dedicated follower of policy, getting some experience of ‘core business’ has got to be worth considering.  From the university’s perspective, why shouldn’t policy advisers be expected to  ‘practise what they brief’, if only to make them better advisers and advocates?  From the adviser’s perspective, we can develop that rare combination of profile and substance that is often lacking in politics (with the well-established special adviser route to ministerial status).

As I’ve argued before, it’s a shame that university systems and structures create parallel tracks for staff that make any such innovation difficult.  Making it happen relies on the entrepreneurship and enthusiasm of those involved (on both sides).  But maybe working on the ‘top corridor’ is only worth it if you also know how to work outside it.

‘Science’ and ‘arts’: should we play in each other’s fields a bit more?

I find science and maths a real draw.  I often listen to The Life Scientific, Material World and More or Less podcasts ahead of more predictable favourites Making History, The Long View and History Today (though maybe not Friday Night Comedy…)

It was interesting to hear the recent  interview on TLS with Sunetra Gupta, novelist and professor of theoretical epidemiology, in which she refused to recognise a division between science and arts, only different ways to express ideas.

From this perspective, the early commitment of Hatfield Technical College to Liberal Studies seems ahead of its time.  All students were to have 10 per cent of teaching time allocated to subjects such as History, Economics, Politics, Geography and Modern Languages.  It was thought that educating the next generation of engineers and technologists in this balanced way would serve the national interest.  So it was rather fitting that C P Snow became the then Hatfield Polytechnic’s first Visitor in 1972.

The humanities have since come into their own as the institution broadened its scope and the model of reserving time for accessing another ‘culture’ did not survive.  Now it seems an unrealisable ideal – and student choice may be delivering a narrower range of experiences than was imposed in the 1950s.  Would we now be prepared to mandate that all students should take a module a year from different Schools or Departments?  What would be the demands on lecturers or the effects on the ‘home’ students?  What would be the implications for students’ grades?  Then again, if we did do it, what might be the returns?

While academics tend to have a strong sense of disciplinary identity, many of us also have an inclination for greater integration of different ways of expressing ideas.  And these may well currently be manifested only in podcast preferences.

But there is often more than unites than divides us.  I often find Alice Bell’s blog Through The Looking Glass setting off some mental sparks and work aligning scientific and historical method has proved hugely interesting and useful. The case for interdisciplinarity between ‘science’ and ‘arts’ in meeting some of the biggest challenges we face, such as climate change or an ageing society, is now being made in stronger terms. But how often do we actually bridge the divide? Or if we do, do we tend to contribute to the greater whole from our respective positions as specialists in our disciplines, rather than getting to ‘play in each other’s fields’?

Does a great piece of history writing have to address itself to one readership over another?

I just wanted to reblog a interesting piece on the Guardian Higher Education Network that takes on the academic/public history divide.

John Gallagher argues that history can be both popular and academically rigorous

A satire on university politics published in 1908 introduced ‘The Principle of Sound Learning’, which stated that ‘the noise of vulgar fame should never trouble the cloistered calm of academic existence’. This attitude to popular scholarship came to mind recently when eminent historian Sir Keith Thomas spoke to the Independent about the books he had read as a judge of the prestigious Wolfson History Prize.

He said: “There is a tendency for young historians who have completed their doctoral thesis to, rather than present it in a conventional academic form, immediately hire an agent, cut out the footnotes, jazz it all up a bit and try to produce a historical bestseller from what would have otherwise been a perfectly good academic work. The reality is that only a few of these works succeed commercially.”

Thomas reportedly bemoaned a ‘parasitic’ relationship between high-flying popular historians, who let poor academics slave away in archives, doing the real work of research, before nabbing their findings and using them in mass-market paperbacks.

The response from much of the historical establishment was largely uncritical. Antony Beevor, saw no fundamental problem with the caricature of “a dash for fame among freshly-hatched PhDs”, couldn’t name a single one. Even after Thomas said his comments had been misinterpreted, History Today’s Tim Stanley wholeheartedly endorsed them: “We all know of whom he [Thomas] speaks: those beautiful historians who graduate from PhD to Penguin to BBC with indecent haste.”

Do we, though? Apparently “we all know” who’s being talked about here. I’m not sure I could name them, though. Can you?

There is, it would seem, a spectre haunting the historical profession. But that’s all it is: none of these commentators tell us who it is that’s been drawn in by “the lure of the limelight”. Apparently: “While the university lecturers do all the primary research, the trade press historians lift it as secondary evidence and scoop all the cash”. But would it hurt – actually, wouldn’t it just be good historiographical practice – to give us an idea who’s doing these things? I only ask, of course, because if you told me that historians with an academic background who were giving the profession a bad name, my thoughts might turn to the likes of David Starkey, rather than the young ‘uns who dared to try abseiling down the ivory tower.

This debate couldn’t be more timely. TV and radio are brimming with exciting new history programming from the likes of Helen Castor, Amanda Vickery, and Mary Beard. Popular history has an uncanny knack for raising hackles – every new documentary is assailed with the same arguments about flash presentation and ‘dumbing down’. We – the public, not just the historical profession – are in the middle of a conversation about how academic history can be presented in a way that makes it exciting, interesting, and accessible, all without losing its academic integrity.

In canvassing for opinions from the academic community, Dr Suzannah Lipscomb, an academic historian who also writes and broadcasts widely, emailed me these thoughts: “There needs to be a spectrum of historical writing – from the deeply academic to the fearlessly popular. The work of the academic who is toiling at the coalface, in the archives, to generate new knowledge is fantastically important – but so is the work of the historian who shares that knowledge with the public”.

The problem with the arguments of Thomas, Beevor, and Stanley, is that they all start from the premise that young academics pushing a public agenda are really after a primetime slot and a wad of cash. This, to put it mildly, is spectacularly disingenuous. Where they might see a gold rush, I see gifted historians making a case for an academic history that has value outside the university common room.

Maybe the real story is that these much-maligned public historians – of all ages – would rather speak to a wider audience not because they’re out to make a quick buck, but because they want a history that is truly popular. Maybe, like me, they believe that a work of history can only have minimal value if it cannot be explained and made interesting to an audience beyond the ivory tower. And maybe the new crop have looked at their elders – the increasingly reactionary rantings of Starkey and Ferguson, say – and thought that it might be time for the whippersnappers to roll up their sleeves and show how they think it should be done.

A lot of comment on this debate misses one simple, crucial fact: the cat’s already out of the bag. The new generation of historians, far from waiting for Penguin and the BBC to come to call, are actively using blogs, Twitter, and even stand-up comedy to reach a far wider audience than their predecessors might have dreamt of. It’s not just recent PhDs doing this – witness the multimedia dynamo that is Mary Beard - but it’s hard to deny that the younger generation’s media literacy has given them an increased ability to enthrall an interested public.

And it’s good for research, too. Dr Lindsey Fitzharris created The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice, a blog about the history of surgery which allows her to merge her academic interests with a desire to reach a wider public. She says that, as well as making people more interested in some fascinating but little-known material, the blog “has forced me to think about my own work from the perspective of a non-specialist”, inspiring “new and interesting ways to think about my research”.

A great piece of history writing doesn’t need to address itself to one readership at the expense of another – Thomas Penn’s The Winter King, a biography of Henry VII, made serious scholarship read like a thriller, and topped best-of-year lists in 2011. The idea of an unbridgeable gap between the academic and the public historian is becoming less and less plausible. The demise of the cloistered scholar needn’t mean the end of brilliant, rigorous history – it just means we get to shout about it from the rooftops.

Humanities and sciences: making common cause

In September, the first cohort of Master’s students in environmental sciences and humanities will be starting at the University of East Anglia.  According to Mike Hulme, Professor of climate change at UEA, the programme aims to ‘fulfil a need to move the environmental debate beyond science’, based on the recognition that ‘science alone cannot motivate social change’.

In emphasising interdisciplinarity and orienting itself around a central theme, such an innovation in programme design is a natural development from research strategies that have come to be configured around ‘grand challenges’.  UCL have four such challenge areas: global health, sustainable cities, intercultural interaction and human wellbeing.  Coventry identify 6 ‘challenges to change the world’: integrated transport and logistics, digital media, ageing community, low impact buildings, sustainable agriculture and food, and low carbon vehicles.  A quick Google search will reveal many other examples in the UK higher education sector and beyond.

It’s an intellectually exciting way of thinking about research and innovation.  It speaks well to audiences outside academe, including policymakers and politicians, and aligns with funding strategies that look for collaboration, cross-over and impact.

Responding to the grand challenges means bringing different discipline areas together.   Science, technology, engineering, design, psychology often have readily identifiable roles, but how far has the potential of the humanities been considered?  The recognition of the importance of people’s ‘stories and beliefs about their own lives and about the planet’ at the heart of the UEA programme is a welcome one, and suggests there is much as yet unrealised potential for integrating the humanities into how we approach the major issues of the modern world.

Low carbon pasts, low carbon futures is a project at the University of Hertfordshire that is looking to explore that potential.  This is what it’s about:

Climate change is a global issue by nature, but it is also a local one.  We may expect to be internationally connected – at least through the Internet and social media if not also through travel – but the quality of our lives is largely about the places in which we live and work.  We know that we need to find low carbon futures for those places, futures that combine economic health and social wellbeing.  But to do that, we need to start asking some different questions.  We need to ask about how communities actually work, bringing in the important insights of urbanism and place shaping.  And because credible responses to climate change adaptation and mitigation must involve changing human behaviour, we need to ask about how human beings interact with their places.  This means drawing on the rich evidence that history offers us of how we have shaped and re-shaped our material worlds, and our understandings of those worlds.  If we want to imagine low-carbon futures, we must first understand low-carbon pasts.

I set it up with Sarah Lloyd, Senior Lecturer in History, and Susan Parham, Head of Urbanism, with whom I’m also presenting a paper, Living heritage: Universities as anchor institutions in sustainable communities, at the Heritage 2012 conference in Porto.  This work is at an early stage so we’d welcome ideas and discussion on the ways in which history can contribute to debates around sustainability but also more broadly on the potential for humanities to inform and help shape inter- and multi-disciplinary approaches to research, development, innovation – and teaching.

Parallel tracks? (Higher) education for employability and intellectual development

Updated: I enjoyed speaking today about the Wilson Review alongside Trudy Norris-Grey at the Westminster Briefing event on graduate employability.  One interesting question from the floor followed up on Trudy’s comments about the mismatch between the skills developed by students at university and those needed by employers.  What did she think higher education was for?  By way of explanation, the questioner suggested that universities were trying to do many different things at the same time, and that maybe the development of employability skills and intellectual capacity were two such parallel tracks.  (I don’t quote her exactly but hope I have captured the essence of her contribution.)

I thought this was an interesting perspective and one that is often raised in discussions about the role and purpose of higher education as preparation for the world of work.  But can we see employability and intellectual capacities as overlapping domains rather than parallel tracks?  I’m interested both from a research and from a teaching and learning perspective in the skills and cognitive capabilities history students learn through their academic training.  Is it the case that those skills and capabilities are separate from, and therefore need to be supplemented by, employability training?  Or is it that it’s difficult to recognise and articulate the ways in which they have value and applicability in both academic and work-related contexts?

It may be that a mix of both is required, but I wonder if we do enough to help students really engage with the processes of academic training and the implications for their future careers.  Can we ourselves explain well what that training is equipping them to do, whether it’s history, philosophy, life sciences or economics?  I put down these initial reflections in one of the ‘thinkpieces‘ we wrote as a way of getting going on the Wilson Review.  I hope that the spirit of trying to see past potential dividing lines (such as between employability and academic training) came through in the final report.