Friday, March 16, 2012

Quiet time to do research

Denmark, like most countries, has an ongoing debate about how Universities are to get as much as possible out of the Universities. Due to very good economic support for students, many young people try to ride out the crisis by taking an education. That is not the worst way to go, and I am all for offering education as an alternative to unemployment.

However: the Universities expected to deliver this education get very little extra funding for it, no new positions and also a change of policy which rewards externally funded research, and takes teaching for granted (link in Danish, it's about the demand for more teaching in the Universities.) Now, professors are not stupid (if we were, that would indeed be a sad state of affairs), even if they sometimes are idealistic. And so, when the government says: get more research funding - well, we get more research funding, putting researchers on the case, while finding ways to keep the teaching rolling at the side.

This leads to teaching which is not research based, because all the professors are busy doing research for external funding, just like the government ordered! In order to fix this, the government insists that students need to have more classes, and these classes have to be with the professors who actually do research: research based teaching.

I am very much in favour of this, so I have no problems with the demand for more research based teaching. It's the one benefit Universities have over private research organisations: I get to meet students. Over the years, students have challenged me, pushed me and rewarded me in ways no other part of my job does. But they challenge me into doing research. Without research, which gives me something new and interesting to share and each, facing the students become a repetitive chore.

At the same time, research appears to be viewed as a time of "quiet", of "peace". "We need to give the staff quiet, calm times to do research," professor Sune Auken from the blog Forskningsfrihed says. The error in this is how it puts teaching, apparently a stressful, draining chore, up against research, a calm, peaceful, contemplative activity. In my experience, this is wrong. Of course, included in research is long hours of reading, days of checking for literature, months of analysing data, sometimes years of organising and writing up theories and findings. It may look peaceful. Still, if you're doing research worth the paper it's printed on, it's stressful, tense, fraught with doubt and built on meticulous, tedious fact-checking and proofing, in all possible ways.

Research isn't a time of calm or quiet, it's a time of immersion, introspection and tension, put up against a time of activity, communication and attention to others. In universities these two positions do not oppose each other, they play together and rejuvenate each other. The teacher needs long stretches of time protected from teaching in order to immerse herself into research. The researchers needs to come out of the immersion and communicate, be challenged and be pushed, in order to have something new to bring into her time of immersion.

Of these activities, teaching is the one that it is possible to hire others for though. Entry-level teaching can easily be done by somewhat more advanced teachers, that's not where researchers really have to engage. And so in order to meet the demands for research, universities look at the teaching hours, and move the researchers from the least demanding classes - which also happen to be the most populated. It's a matter of trying to work more efficient - as the government constantly insist the Universities should do. This way some students will get research-based teaching. Hiring non-teaching researchers to do the research while the professors teach means NO students will get research based teaching, as their professors will always be teaching, and never researching.

In order to create a good policy of teaching and research, the government needs to remember that it's the same people who have to do both. It's impossible to drain the university brains into externally funded research, and expect the same heads to have time to teach. And it's impossible to demand research based teaching, and not give the teachers time and opportunity to do research. There are only two answers to this: Fewer students, or more professors. Barring some groups in different organisations - there are always some groups that have more slack than they really ought to have, I have no idea where, but they exist, it's the law of organisations - that is the only way the government can have both more teaching for each student, and more research for each professor. I am sorry. There are no easy ways to split the professorial heads, and neither research based teaching, research itself happens without effort.

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