Teaching and Learning in the School of Arts and Humanities

Introduction

I am struck, when reading articles on teaching and learning, how often a phrase such as ‘the need to raise the profile of teaching and learning’ occurs. It would seem that those of us with a professional interest in issues around teaching and learning feel that we are in some way fighting a battle to raise the status and importance of the very activity that is central to the business of higher education. This article will explore this issue in relation to the linking of teaching and research in the highly research-active School of Arts and Humanities. It will also provide a brief overview of the School and of its structure and organisation after its most recent restructuring.

Restructuring

The School of Arts and Humanities was formed out of three former Schools: Languages, Humanities, and Art, Music and Publishing. In the process a highly diverse School was created that encompassed both a wide range of subjects and teaching and learning processes. This ranged from the traditional humanities subjects of English, History and History of Art which tend towards a lecture/seminar teaching style, through the modern languages, French, Spanish, Japanese, German and Italian and their mix of practical language skills acquisition and cultural content lecturing, to the practical arts, Fine Art and Music, with their emphasis on individual creative practice. Publishing adds a vocational element with its industry-led, practically orientated course. The portfolio of courses included all the above as undergraduate courses with the addition of a pre-degree foundation diploma in Art and Design studies, as well as MA programmes in the Humanities; Publishing; Electronic Media; European Business Culture and Languages; and Contemporary Arts and Music.

The Dean of the new School, Professor John Perkins, created a number of new Principal Lecturers. Quality was taken on by Dr. Harry Mount, the taught MA provision by Dr. Louise Durning, and Teaching and Learning by Adrian Bullock, who oversaw the development of the School’s first teaching and learning strategy and who was instrumental in helping programme teams to consider the constructive alignment of their programmes during the redesigning for semester process. John Perkins retired at the end of 2004 and the new Dean, Professor Linda Fitzsimmons, was faced with the need to address the School’s significant structural financial deficit caused in part by the moving of ICELS to the Westminster Institute. A new management structure was established in the School with the appointment of three new 0.5 Assistant Dean positions for Research (Professor Steve King), for Resources (Sue Pandit), and myself as Assistant Dean for Teaching and Learning. The new School Management Group’s first task was to oversee the University’s decision, taken through the Modern Languages Review, to phase out the teaching of German and Spanish at degree level and to completely phase out Italian modules. This was a difficult and problematic process for all concerned, especially for those staff teaching in these areas. However, the Modern Languages Review also recommended that the School proceed with its plans for a Modern Languages Unit, teaching languages to minor level and basic language skills for all, it being recognised that language skills add to a students’ employability. The Modern Languages Unit has now been established in the School and we now are able to provide minors in French, Spanish and Japanese, as well as basic language modules in these languages as well as other languages if there is sufficient demand. There has also been significant investment in a new digital classroom for language teaching.

The School was significantly restructured in summer 2005. The number of Departments was reduced from eight to five, with the five remaining Departments being History, English, Publishing, Languages (including the Modern Languages Unit) and Arts: Art, Music, Arts Administration and Film Studies. History of Art has now become part of the History Department. The organisation of Quality and of Teaching and Learning was taken by two newly titled committees, the Academic Quality Committee and the Academic Development Committee, which report respectively to the University Quality and Standards Committee and the Learning and Teaching Committee.

Teaching

The School of Arts and Humanities recognises that high-level research is intrinsic to its short- and long-term success. This means that the relationship between teaching and research must be to some extent managed. Research brings obvious benefits. High RAE scores attract high-quality staff, gain prestige for departments and programmes helping to attract students and push programmes up league tables. External research grants bring in essential income for the School and provide opportunities for staff to be bought out of teaching. The School has established effective mechanisms for supporting and encouraging research activity with a School grants panel offering mentoring and support for researchers making external grant submissions and the School Research Committee overseeing access to the School’s research fund on a strictly competitive basis. The School now has an excellent record of external grant successes and, as well as the already excellent units in History and English, has put in place sound procedures for bringing other units such as Fine Art, Music and Film up to a similarly high standard. However, balancing the demands of teaching and research is not a straightforward process.

There is a fundamental difference between the processes of teaching and research. By researching I mean active research that makes an ongoing contribution to its field. By its nature research is an open, outward-facing activity. The results of research are made public and scrutinised by a critical audience of experts in the field. Teaching, however, is not open in the same way. Much teaching could be described as a relatively closed activity in that it takes place between a solitary lecturer and an annually changing group of students. While there is ideally a sharing of information between lecturer and student, the material being delivered may in some cases remain relatively static and the content of the modules is not scrutinised the same way that research is. There are few financial incentives for the average lecturer to radically develop what they teach and in many cases material may remain the same for a number of years. Teaching can end up being a closed activity in that the level of scrutiny placed on lecturers in terms of the sharing of their teaching with others is often minimal. There can be cases where different academic members of the same field know relatively little of either the teaching methods of their colleagues or of what is being taught in other modules. Although this may seem a rather negative view of the activity of teaching it is one that I know from personal experience can be the case. I also know that there are fields where this is clearly not the case, but I am interested in exploring the differences in the activities of teaching and research in o
rder to try to understand or shed some light on the often repeated need ‘to raise the profile of teaching’.

Despite my rather negative picture of teaching there are many highly committed, passionate and inspiring lecturers for whom teaching is a vocation and who manage to maintain a balance between the activities and merits of teaching and researching. However, researching could be said to bring rewards that teaching alone does not. It is clear that both job security and mobility are enhanced by having high-level research outputs. In these times of RAE-driven decision making the choice of a new lecturer may tend towards the excellent researcher but competent lecturer, rather than the excellent teacher but average researcher. This also begs the question of how do we measure excellence in teaching? Excellence in research has some measures in terms of volume and peer esteem of outputs and level of external grant income. How does the excellent teacher prove his or her worth? Judging excellence in teaching needs more objective measures than subjective references and an ability to answer questions in interviews.

Research-teaching nexus

Research is clearly essential on a number of levels. It raises esteem, prestige, income, and it can bring new knowledge into fields and departments, potentially reinvigorating and reinventing subjects. It is not just through new module content that research is linked to teaching. The active researcher will bring insight to established topics through showing the relevance of new thinking on well-trodden subjects. This, of course, is the aim of linking teaching and research; active researchers bring new knowledge and new insights into the curriculum. But how does the successful researcher find time to research and how does the excellent teacher find time to do research?

The excellent teacher knows that the students’ learning experience is vitally important. Good lecturers can inspire their students and can change a student’s perspective, motivating a new generation of thinking individuals. The excellent teacher knows that students come first and their commitment to their students is total. In contrast the excellent researcher also knows that the student experience is important, but they may also recognise that high-level research requires a highly focussed mindset. It could be argued that research at a high level requires periods of intense concentration and immersion in the subject; a state of mind that is not easily achieved while interrupted by the day-to-day demands of students. In order to achieve high-level research the excellent researcher may need to have periods of time with no teaching commitments or else be extremely disciplined with his or her management of student contact and student expectation. Having just had an extended period of teaching release I know from personal experience that despite my personal commitment to my students and to teaching, I have needed the absence of the demands of students to allow me to make progress with the research. What is required is for active researchers to move from periods of researching into periods of contributing to the students’ experience and this can itself present problems for the active researcher who may become so immersed in his or her research that it becomes hard to re-engage with the activities of teaching. From a lecturer’s perspective, the active researcher may seem to be selfish because he or she demands focussed time away from students in order to engage in research. This is of course exacerbated by the fact that research can be seen to bring greater rewards than teaching.

So in the pressure cooker environment of the research-intensive School of Arts and Humanities how is the value and profile of teaching raised? The first means of achieving this is to ensure that teaching is not placed in opposition to research, or visa versa. The School Management Group comprising the Dean and the two remaining Assistant Deans, for Research and for Teaching and Learning, all recognise that research success is crucial to the success of the School. My view is that any process of monitoring or rewarding teaching needs to be both straightforward and unobtrusive. Peer observation is a key means by which the observed gains feedback on his or her teaching and the observer gains knowledge of what is being taught. However, it remains the case that some staff see peer observation as intrusive and threatening, an unwelcome intrusion into ‘their’ teaching. This reminds me of the potentially closed nature of teaching as opposed to the open nature of research. Lecturers do not as a rule make their teaching public. Perhaps they should do so more often.

teAcH

One of the key elements in the School of Arts and Humanities strategy for raising the profile of teaching has been through the establishment of the Arts and Humanities Teaching and Learning newsletter, ‘teAcH’. The original impetus for the newsletter came from a discussion during the School Academic Development Committee on ways to create a feedback loop for the wider dissemination of the value and positive benefits of peer observation. The idea was that through the newsletter staff could be encouraged to volunteer personal views on the value of the peer observation process that would be accessible to a wider academic community. However, although we have had an article on the positive benefits of peer observation and anticipate more, the real value of ‘teAcH’ has been to provide a forum for reporting a whole range of teaching-related activities that take place in the School. The newsletter, edited by myself and Dr. Anne-Marie Kilday, head of the History Department, is produced once a semester and is published in a paper format as well as a PDF. Our view was that a paper version delivered to the pigeon hole of all staff in the School was more likely to be read than if it was distributed as yet another email. The costs of producing the newsletter, about 250 copies of A3 folded to A4 photocopies are relatively small. The value is that the range of teaching-related activities is revealed to the entire School.

In the first two issues articles have been published on the activities of the School’s teaching fellows, on the range of e-learning developments, on the positive aspects of peer observation, on the launch of the Poetry Centre by the English Department, on the use of the new Voice Tools software in the teaching of languages and how its use could be expanded into other areas, on the future of text books in the digital age and many other articles. We also used the first edition of ‘teAcH’ to publicise the range of items of good practice that emerged from programme annual reviews within and without the School, and I feel that it would be valuable for short articles on innovative practice in other School’s to be included within ‘teAcH’.

How else can teaching be valued?

As a School we are considering a range of other possibilities. These are not yet in operation but may include the idea of an annual teaching pri
ze, awarded at the graduation ceremony where excellence in teaching is publicly recognised. The prize itself may be nominal, or it may involve some financial reward such as an honorarium. Rewarding teaching with teaching release seems somehow to be a contradiction in terms. The prize giving also serves as a way of publicly praising the value of our excellent lecturers. How the prize is awarded is still to be determined. It may involve peer nomination, student nomination, an application from the lecturer or elements of all of these. If your School already has such a prize or if you have ideas on how such a prize may be managed please let me know.

Raising the profile of teaching requires us to balance the demands of teaching and research both at an individual and at a School-wide level. Understanding that the process of researching places significant demands on the researchers as well as on those ‘left behind’ to pick up the pieces of teaching and administration is necessary so that all staff can work together to bring the positive benefits of research into fields and Departments. Perhaps raising the profile of teaching will also require us to raise the stakes and be more active in our consideration of what is taught and how it is taught. If we had more accurate measures of excellence in teaching then perhaps we could truly recognise it in the way that excellence in research is recognised.

Author details

Ray Lee is a Principal Lecturer in Contemporary Arts. He is a half-time Assistant Dean for Teaching and Learning, which includes responsibility for chairing the School’s Academic Quality and Academic Development Committees. He is also an active practice-based researcher in Art, and his large-scale kinetic sound installation ‘Siren’ is being featured at this year’s Ars Electronica Festival in Linz, Austria.

 

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