Friday, February 04, 2011

Cordon Sanitaire

Jonathan Mayhew has been talking about what he calls the "Cordon Sanitaire" between teaching and research in a series of posts at Bemsha Swing (here, here, here). I completely agree with him about the importance of integrating teaching and research, especially in the mind of the teacher/researcher. The subject we study should also be the subject we teach.

But I'm still using that "we" without sufficient authority. I'm an internal writing consultant at a business school, not a professor of organization studies. I do occasionally teach undergraduates, however, and I do do a bit of scholarship on the side. Because I talk to them every day about their work, I also have a good sense of how scholars divide their time, and their minds, between teaching and research.

One of the ironic things about the "cordon sanitaire", which Jonathan defines as the attitude that research is "esoteric" and of no interest to students, is that you overcome it by clearly distinguishing between your daily activities. It is mainly people who give themselves no focused time to actually do research that find themselves distinguishing it sharply in their minds from what they teach students. If, by contrast, they did some research every day in a focused, unhurried way, and then turned their minds, just as calmly and just as attentively to preparing for class, they would immediately see the connections. Research would inform their teaching, and teaching would demystify their research.

I'm speaking of "research" as though it is one thing. In fact, many scholars have, again as a result of not distinguishing between their tasks in practice, established yet another "cordon sanitaire", this time between "research" and "writing" (which I put in scare quotes because they should not really be distinguished at all). Such researchers read a lot of books, think a lot, and even go into the field to conduct interviews and carry out on-site observations, but they give themselves no time to write. (They may jot down some notes, or frantically produce an abstract or a conference paper in the middle of the night, of course. But they don't, precisely, give themselves time to do these things.) For these people, absurdly, their research is "esoteric" and "of no interest" to their peers! The problem of knowing something has been completely isolated from the problem of conversing about it with other knowledgeable people.

It should be easy to see the parallel to teaching. Both teaching and writing bring what we know into contact with audiences that ought to know it. Our peers know much of what we know and we have to respect that knowledge in presenting something new to them. Our students want to know precisely the sorts of things we know (that's why they have chosen us as their teachers) and we have to, as it were, respect that ignorance—which is also a desire to learn. In both cases, we are bringing our knowledge into a conversation. There should be no theoretical "quarantine line" between what we know, what our readers know, and what our students know.

But there must be a practical distinction between when we study, when we write, and when we teach. If we don't distinguish between these activities in our working day, we will desperately try to keep them separate in our minds in order to compensate. If we divide our days and weeks into working tasks, however, we will be able to keep our minds whole. The tasks, in each case, will simply come into contact with the coherent web of beliefs that is our knowledge.

It occurs to me that I've been experiencing this recently as I try to find a path back to a life of scholarship. Whenever I let my "identity crisis" (am I a consultant or an academic?) interrupt my work, i.e., the planned schedule of my activities (which includes both scholarship and consultancy), I feel the conflict between my identities more strongly. That is, when I mix up my activities (which normally simply means neglecting some of them for a time), my mind compensates by distinguishing sharply between my roles. Suddenly, copy-editing another writer's paper becomes something completely different from working on my own papers. I forget that in both cases I'm bringing a manifold of skills and knowledge to bear on a text. Different texts, yes, but it is, or should be, the same mind that goes to work on them.

Carve up your day, not your mind. That's my motto.

1 comment:

Jonathan said...

So integration depends on differentiation and equilibrium. If teaching and preparation for teaching takes virtually all of my time, I come to see it as detrimental to research.