One of the questions a head of department is likely to be asked around this time of year goes along the lines: ‘Would you like some research with that?’ Or, in other words, as we identify a need – and more importantly find funding – for short-term teaching appintments, the decision to be made is whether these appointments will be ‘teaching-only’, or will also have research duties written into the contracts.
The rise of teaching-only jobs has been a feature of the past 10-20 years in the UK. It wasn’t my experience: my first job, a three-year contract at the University of Sydney, assumed research activity. There wasn’t much pressure, nor much in the way of a workload model; I was just put in an office and expected to get along with things, one way or another. But the world has changed. Casualization is a huge and worrying trend in North America, usually taking the form of ‘adjunct’ lecturers hired to teach by the module, and often as a result piecing together a living from multiple universities. This is transforming, in all sorts of ways, the expectations and lives of early-career academics on the other side of the Atlantic.
Conditions in the UK are generally better than that, albeit arguably trending in that direction. The UCU published a worrying report last month on conditions for casual staff, while plenty of university managers will be watching, with interest, developments at Warwick.) Nonetheless, the pressures of the RAE and REF have forced us to be more pragmatic about how we deploy research resources: including, most fundamentally, money. As a manager, the basic challenge for me is ensuring that my department maximizes its research capacity while maintaining its teaching quality. Research support is precious and (whether via grants or the REF’s ‘quality-related’ dividends) hard-won. Just as we agonize, increasingly, about how to use research leave, so we have to think about all those hours in the year’s workload model that are devoted to research. Will that investment help us when we get to the next REF? Hence the tough logic: short-term appointments equal teaching-only appointments.
Meanwhile, as much as we might assume that teaching-only jobs might attract less impressive fields of candidates, the evidence doesn’t necessarily support that assumption. Such jobs have become part of the landscape, an accepted step on the slippery career ladder. In a tight job market, overproducing PhD graduates in the humanities, we have had some stunning ‘education and scholarship’ lecturers at Exeter in recent years, and their impact on our teaching performance has been overwhelmingly positive. I worry, in fact, that we are becoming institutionally addicted to a stream of such appointments, unable to manage all the demands upon us without their input. But maybe that’s a topic for another blog-post.
Maintaining, then, a focus on the experience of the ‘teaching-only’ temporary lecturers, and the responsibilities of managers towards them, perhaps it makes sense to rephrase the opening question. It’s one thing to worry about a system that makes teaching-only appointments logical, but another to think about how we might make such positions a valuable stepping-stone for the people who take them. The AHRC’s Research Careers and Training Advisory Group is currently considering a new category of ‘research-engaged’ academic staff: to recognize, that is, people who are very much focused on research, even though they are not currently being paid for it. I think that’s an important conceptual step in the right direction, although it will be up to people like me to make sure that it actually means anything on the ground.
What might it mean? Above all, it means doing all we can to help these early career academics into permanent jobs. More specifically, a big part of the answer is cultural: ensuring that teaching-only lecturers are involved, as much as they choose to be, in the research culture of a department. That means seminars and so forth, but also the informal mentoring and support structures that should exist in any healthy department. Financial support for research activities is another question. Can a department afford to provide such support? If so, at what level?
And here are a couple of other issues we face with these contracts. Firstly, should they span a full twelve months, or be limited to the period of the academic year? There’s a logic to the latter, but an ethical argument for the former. We’ve actually found that our workload model enables us to get more teaching from someone on a twelve-month contract: that means, as far as I can tell, that we’ve stumbled into a solution that makes us look ethically sound, through no real input of virtue. I’m not sure where that leaves other universities. Secondly, when appointing to these positions, we tend to tie ourselves in knots over the extent to which excellence in research might be a criterion for appointment. We never list it in our stated criteria, yet it remains, whatever we might pretend, our default mechanism for determining academic quality. Might it be more honest to reassess this? Might the candidates themselves prefer that?
Finally, a paradox. This year, on the back of a three-year Leverhulme fellowship awarded to one of my colleagues, we had funding for a three-year lectureship. Teaching-only or research-active? The Leverhulme Trust don’t stipulate one way or the other (although one would think that they might consider doing so). Anyhow, we chose the latter. Maybe that’s in part the illogical result of middle-aged liberal handwringing; however, maybe it’s also recognition of the way in which three-year appointments have historically tended to lead, one way or another, to longer-lasting relationships. Given that context, we felt it would make sense to ensure we attracted the fullest possible field, and gave the appointee the best possible support with his/her career-development. This isn’t a cost-free decision, for all the reasons outlined above, but it just might work for everyone. Who’s to say, meanwhile, what we might decide if the same question is asked this time next year.