Today is the start of the new term at my university. Last week those empty, echoing corridors started filling up again with tutors finalising their lecture notes, students trying to find the rooms where their new classes will be and administrators wondering how people so highly educated can be so disorganised. But for the first time in a few years, I won’t be joining them. After three years heavily focused on teaching, I’m stepping back and dedicating the next three to research.
The balance between teaching and research is something that academics spend a lot of time worrying about. Although one wise former colleague once said to me that it’s very simple really: All you have to do is read a little bit every day, write a little bit every day and teach a little bit every day. If you do that, you are a scholar. That remains the goal. But during a string of short-term teaching-only contracts, it’s remained just out of reach.
In struggling to find time for the research and writing that we’re usually ultimately judged by, most academics unwittingly compile a long list of grumbles about the teaching side of their job. And until I knew I’d be finding some symmetry over time, I was as guilty as anyone. But I also remained passionate about teaching, even as I jumped at the chance to spend some time on my own work again. Seeing the new term getting underway, there are six things I’m going to miss about teaching.
1. My students. I’ve been lucky, perhaps. But my students at a number of institutions have been a pretty good bunch. On the whole, they’ve been thoughtful, interesting and interested individuals. If History is a subject people sometimes drift into because they did well in it at school, it also takes in those who haven’t decided yet what it is about a fascinating world that fascinates them most. It’s been a pleasure to spend my days with them.
2. Focusing on study skills. If I thought teaching was about students sitting at my feet, learning from the master, I’d run a mile. But it’s not. I might introduce them to new topics, present them with new readings or guide them through new debates. But ultimately it’s about coaching them in the skills needed for them to do it themselves. The part of my job I actually get most excited about is coaching students through how to do what we do. Some people hate it, but I love it. I suppose I’ll be developing my own study skills, but it won’t be the same.
3. Immovable deadlines. If you have an idea for something that would make a book significantly better, most writers would spend a little longer on the book to see that through. However much better you could make a lecture, you can’t put it off for a day to do the extra work. With a heavy teaching load I was the busiest I’ve ever been and, not by coincidence, the most productive I’ve ever been. As someone who loves chopping wood, there’s something very heartening about simply seeing how much you got done.
4. Being forced off my patch. It’s not just the amount of work, but the diversity, that’s been the defining characteristic of the work I’ve done for the past few years – especially the last one. Looking back now it seems I’ve taught a perfectly logical series of topics, getting broader and broader. Yet at the time it felt a chaotic but fascinating series of jumps all over the shop. It’s odd now to be able to go more than a few days without having to master something more-or-less new to me. That was exhausting, but also exhilarating.
5. Being forced to make it interesting. I’ve often asked students if they found a set reading enjoyable. One thing this does is help to establish when a bit more work needs to go in to getting to grips with a topic or an idea, and when the problem is more the quality of the writing. Acknowledging that bad writing exists can help bring in to focus what writing well in essays might look like. And of course it allows us to identify what was useful and made the reading worthwhile, even if it felt like walking through quicksand. And there are plenty of academic texts that feel that way to read. But when you’re in front of a class, what you say simply can’t be dull or impenetrable. If it is, you’ll see it on their faces and they’ll probably tell you. Getting and keeping students interested when there’s so much else they could be doing in busy, exciting times in their lives is a real test of whether you can sell a topic as worthwhile at all.
6. New ideas and perspectives. Like teaching itself, this list begins and ends with the students. They’ve been a constant stream of new ideas and new perspectives. Most of the time they don’t even realise it. They just think they’re getting their head around a new topic or concept. In doing so, most students don’t think they’re doing anything new. But the way they work through them and the way they make the steps from one to the next, or locate the topic at hand to the bigger picture – everyone forges their own path. To quote from my all-time favourite comedy sketch: “Imagine a piano keyboard. 88 keys. Only 88 and yet, and yet, hundreds of new melodies, new tunes, new harmonies are being composed upon hundreds of different keyboards every day in Dorset alone.”
I guess my point is, ultimately, that teaching is part of what makes me (hopefully) a good historian. The dichotomy set up between teaching and research is a real disappointment and at times a real missed opportunity. My hope is that over time we can move beyond REFs and TEFs to a more holistic idea of how to recognise a good scholar. Perhaps we could get some way towards that by asking our students. They tend to have a pretty good sense for these things.