Friday, May 2, 2014

Some thoughts on research skills and the academy: or, why we don't get no respect

a hand writing in a notebook with a penSo back in September, I started a new job here at the University of Edinburgh, teaching research skills and methods to postgraduate students. Of course, I was thrilled to finally have a job, a salary, a pension, even if the job was only part-time and fixed term. I was excited about moving to a new city, particularly one where lots of my family live. And I was really looking forward to doing a job that involved teaching something practical: something that could have a tangible and measurable effect on students. I thought that while research skills and methods teaching was less important, less exciting than research-driven, content-based teaching, it would nevertheless be satisfying to round out the education of the students I teach.

Six months later, I have somewhat revised my original thoughts. I am still thrilled to have a salary (especially on pay day) and it is wonderful to live in Edinburgh, but my conception of the position and relative importance of research skills and methods within humanities teaching and learning has shifted. I think that while subject-matter teaching is important, it is not necessarily less important than research skills and methods teaching and, more importantly, it is damaging and misleading to conceive of these as separate teaching and learning areas.

Research skills and methods training has been seen as less important, historically speaking, in literature-based subjects than in the social sciences, for example. This is generally because it is assumed that analysing a text does not involve any particular method; textual analysis is the core of literature studies and is something that you just do. However, such a view is limiting, both in the scope of what literature studies is and can be and in terms of valuing textual analysis as a research method (Gabriele Griffin has made this argument in her introduction to Research Methods in English Studies).

It is true that things are changing. There is more awareness of research methods and there is more skills training available for students. This is often provided by independent institutes or centres within the university whose sole purpose is to provide training for students. It is also true that the fact that my job exists demonstrates that there is an investment in research training within my literature-based School. (I am also aware that the fact my job is to teach research methods means that I may have a slight bias in this area). However, this does not necessarily mean that research skills and methods teaching is taken seriously by the wider academic community. Crucially, I think that research methods teaching remains external to what most academics do; it is something extra, that is not at the heart of teaching a course on say Chaucer, or Victorian literature.

But, of course, skills and methods training is at the heart of all university teaching. When students are asked to give a presentation in class they are learning skills that they can apply to a job interview. When they write an essay they are learning time management skills, are deploying analytical research methods and are learning to synthesise, paraphrase and structure: they are learning to write. So why, if this is what academics are already doing, is research methods and skills teaching so often left in the cold?

I don't really have an answer to this. What I do know is that the skills and methods I was trained in as a student (in a multi-disciplinary environment) have been really important since finishing my PhD. They got me this job, for a start. But more than that, being aware of different methods and ways to approach research meant that I was able to explore a new project from different angles. New ideas and ways of thinking about research have opened up for me: ways that I am not sure would have been obvious if I had only thought about textual analysis (or, indeed, if I had not thought about 'methods' at all). This is all in addition, of course, to the skills training that helps me to apply for jobs, to give good conference papers and to network with others.

I think we really owe it to students to show that we value research skills and methods, particularly in a period where it is going to be harder for them to get a job and where the academic job market in particular is increasingly limited. While it is important to engage with the subject matter of your research, my point is that devoting some time to learning about skills and methods (so how you can engage with it) makes you better at what you do. And I think that the literature-based humanities can be better at teaching and valuing research skills and methods.

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Griffin, Gabriele (ed.). Research Methods for English Studies. 2nd edition. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2013 (first edition published in 2005). 

Image: Peter Weis, untitled, 2012, via Wikimedia Commons.


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