Friday, December 27, 2013

Lecturers Need Research Time Off-Campus to Best Teach Students

Excavations at the site of Gran Dolina, in Ata...
Archeology dig, Gran Dolina, Spain (Wikipedia)
by , The Guardian:

"When the film was in development, there was a point when I was really struggling to make the script work," says director John Roberts, a two time Bafta award-winner who also lectures at Royal Holloway, University of London.

"Later on, I set it as an exercise for my students. It was about giving them a real problem I'd had to grapple with - how would they find a creative solution that made sense?"

Roberts' new film, Day of the Flowers, is set in Scotland and Cuba and features ballet star Carlos Acosta.

The lecturer invited students on to set as both extras and assistants, and used their observations of the practical reality of film-making to spark tutorial discussions.

In the current debate around higher tuition fees and what purpose universities exist to serve, he argues that providing students with a combination of practice and theory is vital in equipping them for working life.

This means, he says, that it's "vital" for lecturers to have a professional life away from university, "and really be engaged in their own industry in order to be the best teachers they can be and offer something special to students."

The chance to gain genuine insight into working practice, particularly in highly competitive industries, is the holy grail for soon-to-be graduates desperate to stand out from the crowd.

And applying academic study into practical reality can feel hard to do, so an academic who takes the trouble to involve students in their professional practice is likely to be very popular indeed.

"There are fantastic books on museology, on the politics of display, for example, but such resources rarely cover the practicalities of curating an exhibition," observes Gemma Blackshaw, a reader in art history at Plymouth University, who recently developed the National Gallery's 2013 autumn-winter exhibition for the Sainsbury Wing.

Rather than simply completing the high profile contract and enjoying the kudos, however, Blackshaw actively involved her students in the process of bringing the exhibition into being.

"How are loan negotiations handled; what happens when a painting isn't in the right condition to be put on display; how can you write a 40-word wall label for a visitor with a reading age of 13; how can exhibition design reinforce exhibition concept? Students were fascinated by these questions - dry study became rich experience," Blackshaw says.

Close contact with someone working on the "inside" also means that students start to grasp more about the realities of what her working life is like. "Students are always surprised at how collaborative exhibition projects are," she says.

"This isn't about working in an ivory tower, but co-operating with experts from the creative and cultural industries: restorers, architects, graphic designers, writers, editors, education officers, press officers and journalists. Academic research is just the starting point."

Many students who choose a degree in art history - or indeed any other subject where you might struggle to see an obvious career pathway - get worried that job options are being closed off to them.

But in fact, says Blackshaw, "a degree in art history, combined with experience of working with a lecturer who is both a university and a museum professional, widens their options, and this is often a source of great relief!"

For oceanographer Irene Delgado-Fernandez, who works at Edge Hill University near the Sefton coast, making the difficult, dynamic landscape of beaches and sand dunes come alive for students is critical to their deep understanding of the subject. "It is only by hands-on direct experience in the field that this is possible," she says.

Delgado-Fernandez regularly involves undergraduates in her research projects, helping them become familiar with field techniques and computer modeling in a live context that develops students' ability to adjust and adapt as a project requires.

Clearly, it takes extra effort and planning to involve undergraduates in ongoing academic research, but it's worth it because they don't just gain a level of practical competence, says Delgado-Fernandez - they gain skills that would be hard to come by just by reading.

"Students may simply evolve to a richer and more complex level of thought in class," she explains.

"They become more aware of the difficulties associated with investigating the natural world and the decisions that need to be made in research projects. They also become significantly more receptive and open to discussion - it assists in the development of independent and balanced views on topics."

Beaches are one thing. Finding yourself in a career in which tragedy stalks every one of your working hours might not, by contrast, seem that attractive. Even the most hardened student might balk at the prospect of working on mass graves on sites where massacres have taken place.

This, however, is where Ian Hanson focuses his research expertise. Now deputy director of forensic science for archaeology and anthropology at the International Commission for Missing Persons (ICMP), until recently he was a senior lecturer at Bournemouth University and still teaches there.

He says that even in this highly sensitive subject area, it has, with careful project design, been possible to involve students in elements of research for which there was a genuine need to get results.

"Having observed the difficulty in locating buried bullets at crime scenes and graves, we set MSc students the task of testing what happens to bullets when they're fired into the ground or are buried," he explains.

The experiments showed the best way of searching for and finding the maximum amount of ballistic evidence - a method which the ICMP has since taught to teams of investigators in Iraq who excavate mass graves.

For student researchers, the motivation that this type of meaningful contribution to society - both nationally and internationally - can foster is immense, Hanson observes.

And that passion for their subject is highly sought by employers who are looking to differentiate between a multiplicity of applicants for scarce jobs.

Prospective undergraduates who want to squeeze every last drop of value from their university experience might do well to ask: do lecturers just talk to us here, or will they let me learn alongside them as they explore and discover and interrogate their research interests beyond the lecture hall?
Enhanced by Zemanta

No comments:

Post a Comment