The antidote to cranial rectal insertion in the academic world

Independent Scholarship, not “Research-led”

I’m not a fan of the “research-led” mantra that many Universities are so fond of. I think I understand what “research-led” is supposed to mean – that research sets our agenda, that the stuff we expect our students to learn is driven by research, and that decisions (including appointments) are made with a clear remit of boosting research capacity.

But I can’t help but feel that “research-led” has been replaced by “research is all” —that everything else follows behind, is not as important and can be sacrificed in the name of research. I don’t believe it was ever meant in that way, but it often seems like it has become this in our practice and our thinking. We have a language that separates “teaching” from “research”. Our management structures underline this division. And as a consequence, I wonder if it has become divisive, so that there is now an apparent confusion of purpose between (many) academic staff and university leadership.

Is there an alternative?

I think there is. I believe we should replace our emphasis on “research” with an emphasis on “scholarship”. This is scholarship meaning “learning”.I believe this is a term that most academics (at all levels) feel a natural affinity too. It characterises what we all think is valuable and unique about academia.

(I do have some hesitation, having most recently seen this term used as “disinterested scholarship” – this sounds very ivory tower, full of clever clogs too aloof to share. But I think if we are careful, we can maintain the emphasis on “relevant learning”. )

When we conduct research, we aim to learn something new about the world or the people on it. When we publish, we are improving the learning of our peers (indeed, if they don’t read our work and learn from it, was it worth the effort?). We might also be engaged with improving the learning of policy makers, other decision makers or the lay public. And of course, we spend a large part of our time improving the learning of our students (both undergraduates and postgraduates).

It is these things that are the measure of our success – learning more, and helping others to learn. Universities are, after all, institutes of learning. They are not institutes of teaching, nor are they research institutes. It is not sufficient to conduct research. We differentiate ourselves from research institutes because we also have a commitment to the learning of others.And isn’t this ultimately how we would wish ourselves to be judged as individuals, as well as an institution – recognised for the very highest quality learning?

I might even go so far as to say that promotion should be based on an individual’s contribution to scholarship. Promotion is then awarded to those individuals who demonstrate they have made a significant contribution to their own, or other people’s, learning (and not just “research”, as is still typically the case, despite recent efforts to change the criteria).

Focusing on scholarship doesn’t undermine our commitment to research, indeed it emphasises and builds on it, making explicit the value of our research as the basis for learning new things. And in our teaching, the question is no longer “What do we teach?”, but rather, “What should they learn and how will they learn it?”

I believe it is scholarship, not research, that is the core business of a university. The value of this language is that it allows us to reject the false dichotomy of research vs teaching, and recognise that improving learning (our own, or that of others) is the core activity of a scholar and therefore the primary criteria by which we should award promotions or make new appointments.

Does “scholarship” resonate with your sense of what academia is all about? Let me know, add a comment!


2 comments on “Independent Scholarship, not “Research-led”

  1. alanmccolm
    November 10, 2012

    I like the idea and fundamentally agree with the general discourse. I particularly like that you’ve identified and thought of ‘rejecting’ (oe, should this be ‘resolving’?) the ‘false dichotomy’… principle. However, I believe that we can’t improve other people’s learning… what scholarship can do is lead the charge… provide the OPPORTUNITY for them to improve. Improvement is a personal responsibility. I firmly believe that the failure to recognise, accept and take responsibility for various things is at the heart of many issues… without which they are unlikely to be resolved. Otherwise, I like it!

  2. contact742
    November 14, 2012

    But academic promotion forms do reflect these broad aspects of scholarship, Woody, as you know. The recent history of central research council funding has perhaps swung too far towards publications and grant income (although it includes higher degree teaching) but the new REF emphasizes impact – the influence of academia outwith academia. So it’s discouraging acadenemics…

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This entry was posted on November 10, 2012 by in Scholarship, Uncategorized and tagged , , , .
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