Tony Gurr

Something “Rotten” in the State of…RESEARCH – Laurence Raw

In Guest BLOGGERS, Our Universities, Research on 16/03/2011 at 8:59 am
He [Casaubon] told her how he had undertaken to show (what indeed had been attempted before, but not with that thoroughness […] at which Mr. Casaubon aimed) that all the mythical systems or erratic mythical fragments in the world were corruptions of a tradition originally revealed […] But to gather in this great harvest of truth was no light or speedy work. His notes already made a formidable range of volumes, but the crowning task would be to condense these voluminous still-accumulating results and bring them, like the earlier vintage of Hippocratic books, to fit a little shelf. 

George Eliot, Middlemarch.

Published in 1874, George Eliot’s famous novel makes fun of scholars in their ivory towers dedicating their whole lives to research and eventually producing volumes sufficient to fit large or small shelves.

Here “quality” is measured in terms of sheer volume of output.

But have things changed much in our institutions of learning today?

Recently I talked to learners in different institutions at the under- and postgraduate levels, and asked them what they were doing and why. Here are some of their responses:

  • “I’m doing research to get a degree”
  • “I’m finding out more about my subject”
  • “I want to become qualified as a university teacher”
  • “I don’t know.”

The last response is significant, suggesting that learners are asked to perform tasks without having them explained. The next question was slightly more down-to-earth: “What good is your research, both for yourself and for your institution?” Here are some of the responses:

  • “It helps me find out more about my subject”
  • “I can learn how to publish better”
  • “It helps my career”
  • “I don’t know”

Note how that last phrase keeps cropping up. Note, also, that the responses are all in the first person, suggesting that learners measure their development purely in personal rather than institutional terms.

With that in mind, I asked: “How do you think your research could be improved?”

The answers were:

  • “Better access to materials”
  • “More time spent in consultation with supervisors and other staff”
  • “A greater sense of shared purpose”
  • “A more positive feeling”

This last phrase is, once again, significant, suggesting that the responsibility of writing a thesis or another project becomes a chore – and all-encompassing task transforming learners into little Casaubons.

The institution is chiefly to blame for this feeling: too often academic cultures fail to create an atmosphere of give-and-take, apart from the so-called “seminars” – most of which (according to my respondents) consist of one learner reading out their work and their fellow-learners and educators listening passively. So, I asked another question: do you think your research is valuable?

The responses were, again, significant:

  • “Possibly”
  • “Don’t know what you mean”
  • “No”
  • “I don’t know”

The second response is interesting here; for many learners ‘research’ is something they are asked to do to obtain a qualification; its value is never questioned except as a means to an end.

So, I tried to rephrase the question in a way that might produce more positive answers by asking “What is research?”

  • “Finding out more about your subject”
  • “Doing your own thing”
  • “Discovering things and sharing them with people”
  • “Discovering things about yourself”

How many institutions actively understand that these elements should constitute the basic purpose of research? That it is not simply the acquisition of knowledge, but learning the skills of discovering that knowledge and sharing it with others? That collaboration is the fundamental goal of research?

If we’re talking about “quality” within an educational institution, how on earth can we create it unless we can establish an environment in which everyone – learners and educators alike – feels valued in a shared endeavor.

Perhaps we should work from the bottom-up and listen to our learners rather than imposing ideas from above.

Laurence Raw

 

* This straw poll was conducted by email and Twitter with thirty learners (14 men, 16 women)  in three different countries – the United States, Canada and the Turkish Republic – between 6 and 12 March 2011. All names have been omitted.

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