Diary of an ECR #11: Teaching and research

A full month since my last post. Teaching is underway, and I’m at work on a research article. Throw in a few other parts of life, and things have got suddenly a whole lot busier. And that means less space to reflect on what it is I am doing. But let’s make some time for that now.

With teaching now underway, two full weeks into semester, and several weeks of preparation, it’s worthwhile evaluating how I’ve handled the transition. In a useful step for my teaching skills, I am sole-teaching and convening a 2nd year course in political philosophy. I have convening experience, lecturing experience, and tutoring experience, but not simultaneously for the duration of a semester.

That makes for a lot going on. And I place high expectations on myself not to simply externally reproduce what I’ve seen others do. I want each pedagogical  decision and structure to be justified, both with respect to educational research and logical coherence within the unit. A tall order for anyone, right, let alone an early career researcher and teacher. Inevitably, the question will come – and what about your research?

On this front, luckily I’ve been able to hand-pick the unit I am teaching so that the unit doubles as my research in some ways. But we need to differentiate research into different parts. All too often it seems to me (with the exception of when discussing grant writing), research in the humanities and my own discipline is left vague, opaque – some mysterious activity that gives birth to ideas and arguments, and journal articles. We don’t talk much about stages, phases, and the sub-actions that go to make it up:

Hatching or appropriating or selecting ideas; defining a scope; background inquiry; selection of main focii; literature summary; position formation; argumentation; compiling evidence; discovering someone else already wrote about your topic 2 decades ago; drafting; presenting … it goes on.

Now I’m sure that there are some smart people out there who research about “research”, and have developed helpful tools for this. And analogously, for teaching, mutatis mutandis too. And universities apparently have offices dedicated to these things. But at least at the universities I have worked at (ahem, sample size = two), those offices do little to integrate what they presumably know about these things within a Department, so that that department can do what it does in its specific disciplinary field better.

My reflective point here is that in the past, this sort of know-how, or teaching and researching savvy, has been transmitted through specific mentoring relationships, incubated over many years. Postdocs, junior lecturing positions, continuity between PhD and early teaching and research experience. I have benefitted from some of that. But given the increasingly precarious, fluid and pressurised atmosphere in Australian universities at present – this ain’t sufficient any more (if it ever really was, a question worth asking). Someone might say – you were supposed to learn that as a postgrad. But in response to that, you should ask them how much responsibility they had a postgrad – for committees, administration, teaching, all on top of their research (which by the way, didn’t need to be published). At that point they were learning the content of their field – not the professional skills of getting the job done.

So here I am, teaching, researching. I’m lucky to have a bit of a community around me of colleagues, friends and mentors. But I can see how contingent those things are –  after all, I am in fact only precariously employed. Were I teaching somewhere else, I’d have to create these things from scratch. And that strikes me as a deficit in the professional capacity of the normal University collective unit – the Department. Surely some of the money pumped into HR and marketing and other areas of a university could be productively used in employing or workloading for teachers and researchers in Departments specifically with the remit to cultivate the professional know-how of what it is that they are doing.

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