[How Do We “Know” the World Series] Shifting from Research-led Teaching to Liberal Arts Education – Some Critical Reflections from a Non-white Academic Scholar

by Sam Wong

I divide my reflections into two parts: the first part focuses on my changing teaching styles from research-led teaching in the UK to liberal arts teaching in the Netherlands. The second part touches on the post-colonial dilemmas of my identities and research profiles.

To help readers understand my arguments, a brief introduction about my backgrounds and research experiences would be helpful. I am a Hong Kong-born Chinese. After obtaining my first degree in Human Geography in Hong Kong, I worked as a journalist between 1993 and 1998 when Hong Kong was prepared to return to China from the United Kingdom. Suffering from being burnt-out, I decided to study a Master’s degree and, accidentally a PhD, both in the discipline of International Development, in the UK. I completed my PhD in 2004 and started teaching in Bradford, Leeds and Liverpool. My research lies in solar energy development and water management in developing countries, such as South Asia (Bangladesh and India) and Sub-Saharan Africa (Ghana, Uganda and Nigeria). I focus particularly on gender, power and politics. In August, 2016, I moved to the Netherlands and taught in a liberal arts university college in Middelburg, known as University College Roosevelt (UCR)[1].

Comparing research-led teaching and liberal arts teaching

Most UK universities, especially the Russell Group, champion research-led teaching because it fits very well into the Research Excellence Framework (REF) and the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). ‘Good research’ (often defined by 3 or 4-star journal publications, high research impact and big research grants) help universities get good REF results, which guarantee substantial financial rewards from the government. Applying research in teaching is also considered effective in raising students’ learning incentives as the teaching materials come from instructors’ direct experiences which are both timely and relevant.

When I was teaching in the UK, I rarely questioned the research-led teaching philosophy. On the one hand, ‘good research’ determines promotion and guarantees good academic career development. On the other, using my own research to shape curriculums saved a lot of preparation time. Providing my own publications as the key reading materials enhanced my scholarly legitimacy. In order to save up academics’ research time, team-teaching was the norm, especially when I was teaching in Liverpool.

However, after teaching in the liberal arts university in the Netherlands, I reckon that research-led teaching is not desirable or possible. The numbers of instructors of each ‘department’ are small. Taking Human Geography as an example, there are only two Geographers at UCR, including myself. In order to provide undergraduate students with a holistic understanding of Human Geography, I cannot simply design the curriculums based on my own research interests. I have to cover all the essential topics that are beyond my familiarity, such as Religious and Population Geographies. I also need to expand my horizons, not simply focusing on developing countries which I am familiar with, but also developed countries which are relevant to some of my students’ cultural backgrounds.

One of the key features of the liberal arts education is that Science-major students are expected to take at least one course in the discipline of Arts and Humanities and another in Social Sciences. This practice applies to all students majored in Arts and Humanities and Social Sciences. The diverse backgrounds of my students make research-led teaching very ineffective, especially some of my students have no basic knowledge of Human Geography. My research-related topics could be too specific and selective to them.

Post-colonial dilemmas

Human Geography has been influenced by the Post-Colonial discourses (PC) at least over the past three decades. One of the key features of PC underlines the unequal power relationships between the former, largely white and male, powerful colonisers, and the supposedly independent, formerly powerless colonised subjects. Being a non-white academic and being brought up in colonial rule, my research focusing on developing countries seems useful in addressing some of the PC concerns on the one side and increasing my academic objectivity on the other.

In reality, however, the issues of power are far more complicated. The rising influences of China, especially in Africa, have made some (negative) impact on my research. Before the recent involvement of China in developing countries, many people from the government ministries and non-governmental organisations in developing countries simply perceived me as a ‘cute Chinese guy’ who was curious about the situations in their countries. Yet, when more and more negative publicity about China in their countries, some of my interviewees take a ‘neo-imperialist’ perspective and question my research motives. While their suspicion is legitimate and understandable, my skin colour and my Chinese background have given me trouble. These days I spend more time in explaining my research to them. I make use of my Hong Kong/UK identities, passport and universities to distant myself from Mainland China.

As mentioned before, REF stresses research impact on society. My research on developing countries, especially about how solar- and water-related technologies help reduce poverty, provide ideal case studies for the REF submission. The indicators of impact are largely quantitative, in terms of the size of the affected population and the improvement before and after the interventions. The issues of unequal power relationships are often sidelined in the REF submission.

[1] To be honest, my decision was not related to Brexit. I went for the job interview in April 2016. At that time, nearly all surveys by the UK media suggested that Remainers got the upper hand.

Sam Wong is currently working as an Assistant Professor in Human Geography at the University College Roosevelt, the Netherlands. His research interests include development politics, climate change and gender. He has worked in Ghana, Uganda, India and Bangladesh in sustainable technology and water governance.


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