Research and Learning & Teaching

An article appeared in The Times on November 21st (page 38) regarding the purpose of a university, arguing that in the future teaching will have to become as important as research.  Hasn’t that always been the case? As a sector we seem to have been drawn into a culture where learning & teaching and research are seen as something separate. Personally I have always seen them as part of the same continuum. Looking back over 30 years as a reasonably successful researcher, it’s clear that what excited me about research was teaching myself – learning new concepts and skills, and communicating the outcome in the best possible journals for the benefit of all. Surely ‘learning & teaching’ is a further step along that continuum.

As a Russell Group University we claim to be good at research informed teaching. From this it follows that first and foremost we must have a very strong research base. This does not mean that research is more important than teaching – but from the concept, learning & teaching must chronologically follow. In this context it’s worth reflecting on what research informed teaching is. Surely it’s about incorporating the latest research results ‘hot from the lab’ in ones teaching material, but I suggest it’s much more than that. Fundamentally it’s about communicating how knowledge is created. It’s about the fact that progress is “99% perspiration and 1% inspiration”, the euphoria of an important result and the despair when things don’t work quite so well. Moreover it’s about the thought processes required to determine the appropriate approach to solve a particular problem, the importance of teamwork and the skills required to communicate to a non-specialist audience. Finally, it’s about sifting through the burgeoning amount of data which are now available and developing the skills to see the wood from the trees.

I suspect the view that teaching has been perceived as less important than research derives from the fact that, in the past, academic staff whose research activities began to wane would be given more teaching duties. This was seen as a penalty, rather than the reality that each of us needs to contribute fully to the overall mission of the organisation in order to earn our salaries. Having said that, it is a reality that it has been more difficult in the past to secure promotion on the basis of teaching & scholarship versus research. I hope that we have now addressed that imbalance at NU. I am however not  a fan of the notion of  ‘parity of esteem for research and teaching’ – in my view this once again implies that each of these activities is distinct. I’d rather think of it as ‘parity of esteem for those who do  an excellent job’.

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About stevehomans

Professor Steve Homans is a structural biologist with an international reputation in the study of biomolecular interactions. He obtained his first degree and DPhil in Biochemistry at Oxford University, and secured his first academic position as Lecturer at the University of Dundee. In 1998 he received the Zeneca award from the Biochemical Society and was elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Prior to his current appointment he was Dean of the Faculty of Biological Sciences at the University of Leeds. Professor Homans brings extensive expertise of academic leadership and management, with a particular emphasis on organisational change.
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