Valorising Research, Teaching and the Research Hole

My (recently) ex-colleague Jason Wilson has published an insightful piece on self-funded research. We’ve had a number of chats about this over the last year. The examples I raised of ‘self-funded’ research were of cultural studies scholars in the 1980s who did not receive ‘funds’ for research and even included those (for example, like Meaghan Morris) who worked on the fringes of academia as journalists and in the media industry.

Jason makes a number of key points. Firstly, you need to be relatively privileged so as to be able to afford to this in terms of time and money. Secondly, he did not plan for this to be self-funded and the circumstances emerged because the funding application did not work out. This has some implications that Jason notes and that I want to expand on below. Third, he notes it is incredibly mobile, or it is as mobile as Jason is, and the project goes wherever he does, so there is no need for complicated ‘handover’ processes. Lastly, he notes that this experience has made him realise that ‘funding’ and ‘research’ are separate and that receiving ‘funding’ does not necessarily valorise ‘research’ (even though we are encouraged to think in this way). I want to add two points.

First, I want to speculate on the valorising relationship between ‘funding’ and ‘research’. I’ve just finished Graeme Turner’s What’s Become of Cultural Studies (2012) and the below passage resonated with a weird exchange I had with a colleague from another university late last year at a conference. She told me she had never taught at university and I was dumb struck. My first thought was how the hell do you test your ideas from your research to see if they work? Another colleague with a research-focused career suggested that it was the ARC and the various mechanisms which judged the first colleague’s research as worthy. ‘Worthy’ in this context means that it aligns with the government-prescribed ‘national interest’. Maybe the first colleague would not think of themselves in cultural studies, the second colleague certainly would. Here is what Turner says about this phenomena:

I routinely find, when I present talks on research applications and professional development in general, that most of those who attend these seminars take the view that they are entitled to entertain ambitions of a fulltime research career. […] [It] is hard not to feel that it is important for them to recognize that a research-only career remains an unrealistic ambition for 90 per cent of the academics working in cultural studies in Australia. In my own case, for example, the past 10 years of research-only employment have only come after decades of fulltime teaching.

It is the pragmatics of the situation that worry me most, then. And I wonder how these ambitions are being fed. Just what kinds of expectations are being sold to completing doctoral students and to junior staff members by their supervisors or by their university’s research office? Successful ARC applications result in significant funding benefits to the university, and so it is in the interests of Australian universities to encourage their staff to apply; the fact that so few will succeed ultimately does not bother the university much. It should bother us. It raises the possibility that we are going to be filling our teaching programmes with disappointed researchers who regard a conventional teaching appointment as the consolation prize. And it increases the possibility that those who are currently teaching cultural studies in our universities do not believe that the satisfaction teaching generates will play a fundamental role in sustaining them, personally or professionally. (emphasis added, pp 74-75)

I was very happy last year when I finally got to teach an upper-undergraduate unit that aligned with my research interests. My greatest challenge in doing research is not in producing new knowledge or thinking new ideas but in communicating them in a way that is sensible and which non-specialists can understand. I am not sure how teaching fits with others.

Relatedly, over the last year or so I’ve been experimenting with ‘modules’ within units in preparation of an exciting new unit ‘Newsroom’ in the Journalism program here at UC. ‘Newsroom’ is entirely based on research I’ve carried out over the last year on teaching methods for preparing students for the current industry context for media and journalism. It is based on my experience working in the magazine industry and working to adapt (or at least try to adapt) to a post-print industry, but extended beyond this. At its core is working with students to develop the capacity for producing their own expertise in industry contexts that we can’t even imagine. This production of professional expertise derived from the experience of testing out new practices and being confident in engaging with the world actually has more in common with the development of cultural studies in the 1970s and 1980s then it does with the conservative forms of ‘journalism’ education from the 1980s through to the early 2000s. I am hoping those familiar with the so-called ‘media wars’ of the late 1990s and early 2000s can appreciate the irony of all this. Turner as well as Grossberg in his recent book on cultural studies both locate the capacity of one’s student to produce knowledge as a central aim of cultural studies and this has little to do with particular methodologies except in the most abstract (and concrete! Oh, Deleuzian puns). This is a modification of the Kuhnian science-based model of scholarship where instead of the research problems being created on the edge of the scholarly field, and scholarship in part being a performative power struggle between proponents of competing ideas, the edge of the scholarly field (at least in cultural studies) is reoriented so it coincides with the edge of our students’ understanding. ‘Student’ in this context does not necessarily mean undergraduate students at university as it includes anyone we are trying to educate with new forms of knowledge.

Lastly, I want to extend Jason’s point regarding the relationship between research and funding. There is a parallel to the transformation to what we regard as ‘news’ in the journalism industry. By transforming the structural conditions through which ‘research’ is produced, academics are compelled to produce funding applications year in and year out, regardless of whether or not they have a funding-worthy research project. Note ‘funding-worthy research project’ is not determined necessarily by the individual academic or even the institution where he or she is employed but by the constraints of the funding guidelines. Ironically, one of the major expenses for humanities scholars factored into research funding applications, besides for research-only positions, is teaching buyout, so another academic can be paid to cover their teaching. The character of ‘news’ was transformed in the early 20th century so instead of journalists finding news they produced news. News had to be produced because of the ‘news hole’ created by advertising schedules; something had to be put in the hole produced on the page between pre-sold advertising space. Similarly but not exactly the same, research has to be put in the hole produced by the current funding regime. Knowledge is not produced for its own sake, but as a consequence of the imperative to seek research funding. Separating the mechanisms by which research is valorised from the mechanisms by which funding is valorised will mean that knowledge production can be valorised for other reasons.

Here is useful test I might experiment with this year. Does my research help me with my teaching? Both ‘research’ and ‘teaching’ broadly understood.