, , , , ,

I’ve been writing some pieces recently about the value of lectures in higher education, and trying to articulate why I think they’re so important. In the first piece I discussed bad defences of the lecture, and in the next I thought about the connection between lecturing and the idea of “presence”; today I’d like to focus on how it relates to research.

It’s not the most obvious link, after all, our departments tend to organise academics’ time into ”research”, “teaching” and “admin”, recognising these as separate kinds of activity. Nonetheless, I think it’s useful to examine the ways in which research and lecturing relate to each other, and thus the logic of the lecture in an academic system which is concerned with exploring new knowledge.

Perhaps the simplest way lecturing can relate to research is the chance that teaching can spark new ideas for the academic involved. This is one of the most frequent arguments heard for the benefits of combining research and teaching within one institution, rather than (for example) having separate research institutes and colleges for teaching. Students get the benefit of scholars working at the cutting edge of their field, and academics get the benefit of intelligent and engaged young people whose minds are fresh to the subject and who may ask brilliantly awkward questions. Research doesn’t become too inwardly-focused and obsessed with meta-features of its own processes, and teaching is connected to the latest results of intellectual enquiry.

It’s a persuasive picture, and one which can work in many fields. It won’t work for all subjects, though: there are areas of research where fresh minds and undergraduate seminars simply won’t have much of an impact on research. It may well also vary between academics: people research in different ways, and where one scholar may find exchanges with students useful, another may prefer to incubate their ideas privately as they develop. And many scholars spend most of their time teaching on topics which are within their field, but not particularly related to their own research. None of which is an argument against making connections between research and teaching, but it is worth recognising that ‘students contribute to sparking ideas, lecturers explain the latest research’ is not the only connection, and won’t be true in all cases.

There are other benefits, especially for students, which connect lecturing with research. Whilst a lecturer may not always be explaining their own research, or the material recently published on that subject by other scholars, they will probably find that their approach is informed by their awareness of where the field is moving. Critical concepts like (to pick a few from my experience) performance theory, the history of the book, or historiography, which are causing shifts within the scholarly literature, may find their way obliquely into the lecture hall via the lecturer’s general way of thinking. It may not be transmitting research content, exactly, and it need not be research done by the person lecturing, but these ideas and approaches may inform the view of the subject which students end up with.

This is particular to lectures, rather than books or recordings, because of the flexibility of the lecture format. A set textbook cannot simply be updated every year with small tweaks to the wording, or slightly more emphasis on a particular approach, as the author’s thinking alters a bit. It has to be overhauled and rewritten, a large undertaking which depends on a publisher believing that the considerable financial investment will be justified, or simply reprinted as it is.

I have a lot of respect and affection for publishers, but their core concern is not whether my students are getting precisely the version of this particular idea which the author would have wanted if you asked that author today, given the way their thoughts have been drifting over the months (or years) since they drafted that chapter. They will not embark on the costly and time-consuming business of reworking and republishing a book because, on balance, it’d be helpful if that bit about the shift from scrolls to codices was a little, more, you know, nuanced, because actually I’ve had a bit of a think about it.

A book cannot provide this, and nor can a recording. Indeed part of the point of using a recording is that it is repeatable time after time, whether that is intended to make students’ access to materials easier, to free up lecturers’ schedules, to establish a basis for more complex work in seminars, or a combination of these and other factors. Having put the time and effort into recording, editing and producing a video (which, though it may save time long-term, is much more labour-intensive than speaking to a lecture hall), it would seem pointless to go through that process every year. A lecturer has no such problems: they can silently edit and rework their lecture every time they give it.

I’m sure a lot of academics do this, whether instinctively or consciously, to a lecture which they give year after year. They emphasise different parts, add in a new quotation, explain an old source slightly differently. Their life as scholars feeds in, however indirectly, to the experience their students have in the lecture hall. But those students would be cut off from the ongoing process of rethinking and revision if the lecture format wasn’t part of their learning. They would be stranded at a previous point, whether months or years In the past, not able to benefit from the ongoing thoughts of their lecturer.

That notion – that lecturing connects students to an on-going process of ideas being developed and tested – leads on to another benefit of lectures. One of the major insights which Arts and Humanities students grapple with when they come to university is that the subject is continually developing and changing, if only in small increments at a time. Many of them (particularly in literature subjects) are comfortable with the idea that there is no definite ‘right’ answer, and often link this to an assertion that ‘it’s all your interpretation’ or ‘it’s what you get out of the text.’ Part of their academic growth from school to university involves coming to a more nuanced understanding of the ways answers can be right or wrong within their discipline.

This might involve learning to use the different kinds of historical scholarship to validate or invalidate an interpretation they’ve come up with, or getting a sense of the scholarly consensus on a topic to place their work within an existing tradition. A further development takes place when they get used to balancing what they see in a work against these other sources of information, and weighing up whether their reading adds to the previous scholarship, challenges it, or is simply wrong in light of it.

Lecturing is an effective way of modelling this engagement with the wider field for students. In my experience, at least, lectures can help students to see a topic as an evolving process, a balance of opinions and interpretations, and an ongoing scholarly project. Given the way in which volumes like the Cambridge Companions or the Oxford Handbooks present information – straightforward, authoritative and clear – they are attractive and useful to students, but can sometimes obscure the complex and contested tangle of the subject which gave rise to these judgements. Academic monographs and edited collections are more obviously engaged with the processes of research, and situate themselves more explicitly as part of a scholarly conversation, but these tend to be less immediately accessible to students (especially at first-year level) and plunge the reader into depths of academic meta-narrative which they might find disorienting.

During a lecture, I can make clear when I’m citing a long-established orthodoxy, commenting on work being done by colleagues elsewhere in the discipline, giving my own speculative interpretation based on gut feeling and previous experience, borrowing the insight of a mate in our department who knows more than me about this niche, or making any other move which might technically be called an ‘engagement with the field.’ I can ‘annotate’ what I’m doing, providing a level of commentary as I’m doing it, which can (hopefully) help students see how we operate within, against, and at angles to, the ongoing conversation which constitutes an academic field. I can show them how we refer respectfully to other scholars, how we acknowledge their expertise and how we can draw on their published work to develop our own thinking. I can show on what grounds we might want to diverge from the generally accepted view, or how we can operate in the tension between two widely-held but contradictory positions.

I can give them a glimpse into the continual process of thinking, comparing, remembering, speculating and referring which scholars go through every day. This process is what results in academic books, but those books can sometimes obscure it by the very claims to authority which students find so reassuring. This may result in students feeling a bit less certain about the security of the facts they marshal in their essays, or a bit less confident in the absolute value of the knowledge they gained in sixth form about the context of Victorian poetry or postwar gender roles.

That’s unfortunate at the time, if it makes them feel anxious or worry about the value of their expertise, but it is a necessary part of moving from one kind of thinking to another. That move is part of the ‘student experience’ which I’ve been increasingly thinking about over the last few years, as I teach a lot of first-year students, and I’m convinced that lectures play a vital role in helping students through it.

So I think that lectures are connected to research in close and helpful ways. Even if the lecturer is not giving an account of their own research, nor finding that their teaching feeds into their scholarly work, the two activities are enmeshed. That has been my experience, at least – and do share yours in the comments.