Mind the Gap

mind-the-gap* This post initially appear on the Practicum: Critical Theory, Religion Pedagogy blog.

By Russell T. McCutcheon

I’ve often heard scholars talk about the frustrating gap between their research and teaching. Depending on the type of institution in which you work you may think there’s little in common between the two, given how specialized your research is and, in some cases, how general your classes are. The apparent coin of our realm—working in research universities where we get to supervise doctoral students—ensures that the gap is sometimes barely detected, as is the case when you teach in areas that many in our field (at least in the U.S.) take for granted as being of essential importance to any department, like an Americanist who often teaches nothing but courses on “things American” or a New Testament scholar who (as I’ve remarked elsewhere in the past), isn’t often called upon to teach outside their specialty. Sure, the gaze narrows as you go through the curriculum—no longer introduced to the entire canon at the start of an undergrad degree, sooner or later you end up teaching students to focus on but one epistle, more than likely one verse or even word (akin to what you do in your own research); professors in such areas are always in the luxurious position of never having to leave their comfort zone.

Others are not so lucky, however—trained in no less specialized areas, having often spent just as many years acquiring languages or doing fieldwork, they have the survey of world religions drop in their lap routinely. “Can you teach a course on myths and rituals?” is not often asked of some of us but it is regularly asked of others.

But I’d like to trouble the mentality that sees one as teaching closer to the expertise than the other. To put it another way, I think the object you happen to study and the classes you happen to teach can be understood as being far more related to one another than we usually think. For the problem is that we usually talk about our work based on the self-evidency of the object we happen to study—“I’m an Asianist” or “I do the gospels”—rather than the approach we take or, better yet, the problems we’re trying to solve and the curiosities we’re trying to satisfy. If we made this little shift, if we began to see all that specialization as simply providing us with in-depth knowledge of a particular example, a specific instance where we aim to examine something that, of course, can be seen to be happening elsewhere as well, then I’d suggest that virtually any class we teach can be as relevant to our work as anything else, for the class’s topic can be seen as but another example of the problem that fascinates us.

And if it fascinates us and can be seen to be happening elsewhere as well, I’m guessing we’ll have conversation partners in other specialties who, yes, study other stuff but do so for the same reason as us.

So it seems to me that the impression of a gap between one’s research and teaching is evidence of someone who has failed to understand their object of study—some text, some village somewhere, some artifact, or some organization—to be the result of human processes, contests, co-operations, accidents, etc. That is, we all study people and what they leave behind, meaning that, as relatively intelligent, motivated scholars, we should all be able to find in virtually anything people do or make an instance of the processes that fascinate us. For such a person, able to articulate precisely why they study what they do—what reason makes it interesting, what culture-wide process does it illustrate so nicely as to compel us to study it for a year, or five or an entire career—there’s really no gap between teaching and research, and any course they teach, anything they write, become mutually informing.

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