All entries for Sunday 14 June 2009

June 14, 2009

Can Teaching and Research Be Integrated in Today's University?

It’s a commonplace to describe the functions of the modern university as the integration of teaching and research. The original idea was for this integration to take place in each professional academic, whose duty to push back the frontiers of knowledge was matched by an equal obligation to make that knowledge available to the widest audience possible. In The Sociology of Intellectual Life, I discuss these two phases as constituting the creative destruction of social capital. Here’s what I mean.

Research involves the accumulation of social capital, as academics, investors and clients create the networks needed to produce and maintain new knowledge. Most, if not all, of these people are motivated by the desire for competitive advantage in the economy, the intellectual field or society more generally. However, the Enlightenment norms of the university prescribe that this knowledge not be limited simply to those able to pay for it; hence, the pedagogical imperative. For its part, teaching requires the translation of knowledge claims into a language comprehensible by those who were not directly involved in its production or, for that matter, are likely to extend it in the directions intended by those so involved. In other words, teaching aims to destroy whatever initial competitive advantage the researchers had. This in turn triggers a new cycle of knowledge-based social capital creation, which will be itself overturned over time, etc. The overall result is a constant stream of innovation that ensures the dynamism of the social order.

Or, so that’s the theory….

The problem with this picture – which I believe is highly desirable – is that it’s becoming harder to integrate teaching and research. The contrasting demand structures and performance standards required of teaching and research pull academics in opposing directions that most universities end up resolving by segmenting the academic labour force into those who are primarily ‘teachers’ and those who are ‘researchers’. The teachers are driven to sustain courses that maximize student demand, which tends to be increasingly vocational, while researchers follow funding priorities and specialist fashions. So then where, if anywhere, can the fabled ‘integration’ of teaching and research occur?

The answer is supposed to lie in that elusive beast known as the curriculum committee, where academics bid to turn aspects of their research into course offerings. What should non-specialists know about specialist topics? Asked at the broadest level – as has been the case in many American universities – we come upon the idea of General Education, which many would consider the soul of the university. In its grandest conception, in early 19th century Germany, it was imagined that the student would be locus of integration as they selected from a variety of courses to complete their development as fully autonomous human beings.

I want to explore the idea of General Education in a subsequent blog – and what it might mean now, especially given the forces that go against integration in today’s university. How would such a curriculum be organized?

June 2009

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