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To teach, must I principally research?

A couple of weeks ago at the HE STEM Conference I saw a keynote lecture by Sir Alan Langlands, Chief Executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England. During a questions session following this, I was surprised to be handed the microphone but apparently I had raised my hand. I asked a question. Quite a number of people approached me during the remaining day-and-a-half of the conference to say what a good question it had been so I thought I would share it here.

Sir Alan had spoken about the challenges facing STEM in HE and about the legacy of the National HE STEM Programme. On the latter, reflecting the hope that much of the HE STEM activity will develop into ongoing practice in universities, he said he hoped we wouldn’t think of this as the end but as a beginning. He also spoke about challenges affecting the sector in terms of Goverment initiatives and other factors, and the important of teaching and learning, research, etc. When I was handed the microphone I said into this something like the following.

I was interested that you spoke about looking to the future. I work for a former Higher Education Academy Subject Centre on a project funded by the National HE STEM Programme. So my contract ends tomorrow1. I aspire to being a lecturer who takes a professional research interest in his teaching but almost every job advert I read has number 1 ‘a PhD in mathematics’ and number 2 ‘ability to bring in research income’. So, while I shouldn’t ask such a personal question, I suppose I’m asking: should I acquire a research topic or plan a different career?

I’m afraid that extreme nervousness has made what happened next a bit of a blur. I certainly don’t feel like I got a satisfactory answer and several of the people who congratulated me on my question said as much to me. Perhaps someone who was there will be able to fill in more of the details via the comments.

He, quite rightly, addressed the general point rather than my specific circumstances. He certainly spoke about some universities increasingly making available career routes – both hiring new people and allowing for promotion – based on merit attached to teaching activities, and suggested that I might need to ‘shop around’ to find an institution to suit me. This is true, in that I aware of departments more friendly to my aims and I sometimes meet people who are employed as Teaching Fellows or similar who talk of promotion possibilities linked to teaching achievements. However, the norm is still to hire a researcher who, begrudgingly, indifferently or happily, is required to teach as a secondary objective. This is what I was getting at with my job advert for the University of Excellence.

I should be clear that I am not against mathematical research in any way. It’s just that I am drawn to the challenge of helping people to understand something about mathematics and its applications, and I feel that people who are willing to spend their time and energy on better teaching, outreach, educational research, etc. should have a more prominent place in the system.

1. These are both programmes formally funded by HEFCE so really I was making an unfair swipe here. I hope it didn’t make me seem too much the disgruntled ex-employee but I was a little frustrated at the suggestion that the expiry of the funding for my employment should be viewed as an exciting new beginning.

4 Responses to “To teach, must I principally research?”

  1. Peter Rowlett

    @be_slayed: this is what I would like to do but it often doesn’t count. Maths research for the maths department and education research for the education department. Of course, the education department want qualified teachers who will deliver teacher training, not teach maths to undergrads. (Disclaimer: as with most things I write on this topic, this is a slightly unfair generalisation.)

    @Chantal: Thanks. Opinions on college education looks like an interesting read.

  2. Mozibur

    Definitely, the system should make space for good teachers. Good researchers do not necessarily make good teachers. And most science/mathematics students are there to learn, not create novel new theories, or extend them in any significant way. It seems an obvious point of logic. Research is there to pull the grants in, teachers are there to pull the students in. Sometimes the two coincide, sometimes not.


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