Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Belshaw’s World – Barratt’s story: can the academic present measure up to its past?

For those who haven’t come across my train reading yet, these are the books I read two and from work. Each is just plucked from the shelves, and they vary greatly. This week my training reading is P E H Barratt, Psychology at New England: An autobiographical history of the first forty years (University of New England Publishing Unit, Armidale, 1983)

Paul Barrett Snr, we have to call him Snr because his son Paul Barratt Jnr is another very well known New Englander, was the first student to be enrolled at the newly established New England University College in 1938 and later the University’s third professor of psychology. The book is part reminiscence; part an overview of the author’s evolving interest in the discipline and teaching of psychology.

I suppose it could be a boring book to those who know nothing about the people, nothing about the history, nothing about the discipline itself. However, it is quite fascinating to me.

One if the big issues today in academe is the split between teaching and research. We need, or so it is argued, establish a clear division between the two. Staff and institutions must specialise in either. We can’t have both. That was not the view of early staff at either the College or subsequent University.

By the nature of the times in a small, newly established institution, teaching had to come first. Library resources were limited, courses had to be written or upgraded, students had to be guided and examined. There was neither the time nor the resources required for full or even intensive research, something that cost the staff members in question in career terms. And yet, none of them appeared to mind.

Not all the early staff were good teachers. Still, in total they did a pretty good job, aided by small class sizes and an intense academically oriented residential atmosphere. Pound for pound, their early students had lower entry qualifications than students entering Sydney, the mother university. Despite that, pound for pound, their students achieved relatively better results even when marked by Sydney staff.

While teaching came first, the ideal of the academy was deeply embedded: you had to ensure that your students had access to the range of the discipline; you had to do some research to extend your knowledge; and for many, applied research was critical to the areas that the College and University served. One result was that, relative to size, the College and University had a good research output measures by those standards so beloved by our current university funders.

Professor Barratt’s book charts the challenges involved in developing a new institution, in teaching, in trying to balance research and teaching where research had to come second. But it is also an exploration of his evolving ideas about his own discipline. In that sense, it’s a very academic book.

Paul Barratt Snr admits that he did not write as much as he should, that he didn’t carry the formulation of his ideas to the point that he should. Like many New England academics, he taught and revised certain courses year after year without ever publishing the results. Like a number of New England academics, he thought that too much was being published to the point that quantity totally outweighed content – and the budgets required to buy the ever-expanding volume of publications.

I regret his failure to publish the course material, as I regret my father’s failure to publish his history of economic thought material This was constantly being re-researched, rewritten, re-tested with students and then rewritten again.

When, at the request of some of his ex students, I tried to get him to publish, he simply said that there was too much written. In reality, I suppose, he just enjoyed the personal research and its representation to students via teaching. I was that that interested him.

It is just this point that pulls me up in my tracks about current approaches.

Do we really expect those university people designated as “teachers” with the heavy loads now expected of them to maintain currency in their subject areas, let alone pursue the intellectual curiosity (call it research; it is) required to improve? I think that we are being unrealistic and short sighted. But then, I accept that I am old fashioned.


Evan said...

The division of head and hand is stupid. And deeply entrenched in our institutions.

For some people very interested (and intensely cerebral) about this

Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks, Evan. I hadn't seen that site before.