To be a graduate student is to straddle two worlds. You retain the student identity—although any classes you take and any “studying” you do is done in support of the research project you’ve identified for yourself—while (most likely) having some kind of undergraduate teaching responsibilities either as a teaching assistant or a teaching fellow. Sometimes when I think about the various jobs I do now in relation to my future career aspiration (which, for the record, is to be a tenured faculty member in one of the departments in which I have teaching and research experience as an interdisciplinary graduate student) I find it curious that the university seems to be in at least two very different businesses. This post is a reflection on that perception if for no other reason than to think through the connection between research and teaching that has always seemed to me so naturalized.
On the one hand, faculty are responsible for the production of original research and the training of new researchers. On the other hand, they are responsible for educating undergraduates for the purpose, mostly, of sending them off to places other than the academy. Given the crisis in the academy and elsewhere of replacing full-time positions with “just-in-time” temporary labour with no job security or benefits, a great many of these undergraduates are being educated by people who are highly qualified with degrees in which they did produce their own original contributions to knowledge, but who are no longer paid to do so. Thus, it doesn’t seem to be considered crucial that undergraduates receive their education from the producers of knowledge themselves.
This fact seems to widen the gap between the two businesses the university appears to be in. My impression is that what our formation as graduate students prepares us for, before doing it in a professional capacity, is more about the research than the teaching. Our research seems to happen in a kind of training phase where we’re taking classes in theory and methodology to support our work, which we show mostly only to our supervisor until we mutually agree that it’s baked enough to workshop at a conference, send to a journal, or submit as a dissertation. But the first time we teach, what we’re offering is, in that instant, a kind of final product. It is a component of someone else’s education, which they take to be of professional quality. But the first time we teach, we are not required to have any teacher training, and the training that is on offer at Queen’s consists in one day of workshops on a variety of topics from assessment to TA and TF union representation. (As I’ve mentioned before, I enjoyed this day quite a bit, for the brief primer that it was). Of course we learn things about good course design from having taken classes as a student ourselves and we learn things about delivery from having presented talks, but by and large, having a facility for research does not necessarily translate into a facility for teaching. And these are far from the only components of teaching, either.
But adjuncting indefinitely, all too often for years and years, is increasingly the only way for new PhDs to continue working in the university in an academic capacity. For many, it’s the only shaky foothold available on the narrowing path toward tenure. The curious upshot of this is that a substantial labour contingent is vying for teaching positions because what they really want to do is the research they were trained to do—certainly in many cases it may be the combination of both research and teaching that appeals—and taking on as many courses as possible is the likeliest way to keep close and competitive for the few full-time positions that may come up and to support themselves while doing it.
The connection between research and teaching is a fruitful one to think through, and what it ultimately highlights is the question of how knowledge creation is valued and how it is administered in an era when all productivity has to be understood in terms of economic productivity and justified with respect to capitalist imperatives.