ECH Teaching Introduction

1 October 2014

Over the past twenty years teaching has often appeared to be the poor relation of research in the context of the academic career. An essential part of the profession, yes; but one not calculated to deliver significant career advancement. Moreover,  in the form of the ‘teaching-only’ contract to which those deemed ineligible for Research Assessment Exercises could be consigned, or an early career historian appointed to a temporary position which terminated at that point of the year at which sustained research activity became possible, its inferior status seemed confirmed. Universities and the education press spoke of and highlighted ‘research stars’ on lucrative contracts which freed them from the burdens of the classroom. But times have changed. It remains more difficult to identify a ‘teaching’ than a ‘research star’, and it undoubtedly remains the case that the high-flying academic career and professional reputation of a historian will depend substantially on his or her research record. Nevertheless, the increasing significance of the core market in undergraduate education both nationally and internationally in the reputation and financial viability of universities, combined with the imperative in the UK to be seen to deliver ‘value for money’ to fee-paying undergraduates, has led to renewed emphasis on the importance of the teaching academics deliver, and a concern that time and effort invested in this aspect of the profession should both be demanded and properly rewarded in career progression. Look around at the middle reaches of the profession, and you will increasingly see historians whose promotion depended to a significant degree on their track record in and commitment to the classroom.

And, in the earlier stages of the historical career, in fact it was ever thus. While a strong research record might be a prerequisite for getting a place on a short list for a permanent academic position,  few heads of department have ever been prepared to commit themselves to the appointment of a future colleague without being  confident that they would be a successful, enthusiastic and willing teacher of undergraduates. This, of course, is the key purpose behind the ‘presentation’ element of most appointment processes, even where the topic to be discussed is the candidate’s research. Can the candidate take a subject about which they could be said to know too much, and make it accessible, exciting and stimulating to a non-specialist audience (which will often include students who will be quizzed about this afterwards)? If they can’t, chances are they won’t be appointed. So, how to ensure that you will be in a position to pass the ‘teaching test’?