Naomi Appleton, HEA Senior Fellow, is Senior Lecturer in Asian Religions at the University of Edinburgh, where she has worked since 2012. She researches and teaches in the areas of Buddhist studies and early Indian religions, and has a particular interest in the role of stories in the construction, communication and challenge of religious ideas. In 2017 Naomi was a recipient of a £100,000 Philip Leverhulme Prize, which recognises the achievement of outstanding researchers whose work has already attracted international recognition and whose future career is exceptionally promising.
It sometimes seems to me as if there is an increased separation of teaching from research in HE these days. Universities have made strategic REF hires of researchers with monographs under their belt, often offering them extra research time as an incentive. Meanwhile, an “ordinary” academic job is increasingly pressured, leaving little time for research without the assistance of a funded buy-out. People with such funding then talk of being “relieved of teaching” or having their “teaching load” reduced, as if teaching is an obstacle to research. Meanwhile, universities are also increasingly reliant on teaching-only academics, who are not expected to be active researchers, at least not as part of their employment. Teaching is valued, and so is research, but there is not always an understanding that the two will be undertaken by the same person. What has happened to the ideal of “research-led teaching”?
I have always been of the opinion that research and teaching naturally feed into one another. At no time was this more obvious to me than when, as a postdoctoral researcher at Cardiff University (2009-12), I was able to teach an upper-level undergraduate course with close alignment to the research project I was pursuing at that time. The course not only allowed me to clarify my own thinking as I prepared my first draft of a monograph, but also enabled live feedback from the students about connections between different aspects, or questions that needed to be addressed. Meanwhile, I was also able to complete an accredited course on HE teaching, leading to fellowship of the HEA. It was the best of both worlds.
Despite having more research-intensive posts in subsequent years (as a “Chancellor’s Fellow” at the University of Edinburgh [2012-15], and as Co-Investigator on an AHRC-funded project [2013-16]) I have always considered teaching to be one of the most important – and one of the most enjoyable – parts of my job. Thus, when I recently found out that I had been awarded a Philip Leverhulme Prize, I began to think about what implications I want this to have not only for my research, but also for my teaching.
I plan to use the prize funds to support my next research project, which explores the role of stories of the Buddha’s past lives in early Indian literature and art. However, rather than use the funds to buy in teaching cover, I am planning to hire a research assistant to help me with the creation of a research resource necessary to my project. This research assistant will also be able to do some of the teaching that I would normally oversee, but as part of a balanced workload that will provide them with a genuine career-development opportunity. As well as researching my project, I plan to teach a new course that closely aligns with the research, revisiting the chance to experience that close feedback loop between teaching and research that I so enjoyed as a postdoctoral fellow.
I can’t pretend that I am unhappy about having the opportunity to reduce my teaching next year. The news of my prize reached me at a particularly busy point of the semester, when I felt – as many of my colleagues do every year – totally overwhelmed by my workload. While I enjoy teaching immensely, and find it very rewarding, the amount of administrative work and emailing and form-filling that accompanies it makes semester-time utterly draining. Teaching a lot of different courses at once also makes it difficult to keep a clear head and to offer the best experience to the students. Reducing the quantity of teaching I do next year will enable me to ensure it is of the highest quality, as well as freeing up time for the research that I love. It will be research-led teaching and teaching-led research, and a lot of fun in the process! I am very grateful to the Leverhulme Trust for making it possible.