Chair's report, 2000-2001


Colleagues will need no reminding that this has been the year both of Subject Review and of the Research Assessment Exercise. Since neither has been completed at the time of writing this report, it would be inappropriate to comment on the processes so far. It is, however, worth noting that one by-product of the RAE process is an overview of the state of research in Classical subjects across the country as a whole, and in particular of the state of postgraduate study; it is important that good use be made, initially through the general report of the RAE panel chair, of the insights that will thus be gained, while of course preserving all the requirements of confidentiality. As for Subject Review, it was agreed at the November 2000 Council CUCD would review the impact of the process after all the assessments were complete. In addition, as with the RAE, so here subject specialist assessors will have gained particular insights into what works in teaching and what does not, and next year's CUCD Standing Committee will investigate whether there are ways in which these can be made more widely available, without of course identifying individual departments or breaching confidentiality requirements. Our subject has already had to change its teaching methods, syllabuses and expectations more than most, to respond to changes both in what is studied in school and the ways in which it is taught: this process has now covered several decades, but the challenges are still very real. Twenty years or so ago the then annual CUCD conference concentrated on issues of practical teaching; that is now the role in particular of the Classics sub-centre of the Learning and Teaching Support Network. My predecessor as Chair, Christopher Rowe, lobbied energetically for a separate sub-centre, and its achievements already in highlighting practical teaching issues and in particular in establishing a relationship with new and junior staff has shown how right he was to do so.

National consultations have again called for responses and provided opportunities to make our voice heard. To the Arts and Humanities Research Board consultation on postgraduate awards CUCD urged that criteria for the award of funding should not discriminate against candidates who have taken up the languages at a relatively late stage in their career. Our membership was divided on whether grants should continue to be allocated to individual students, or whether a more directive system was needed to ensure geographical spread and protect minority specialist areas (e.g. papyrology, palaeography) where there is a vital need for a continuing supply of trained experts. The inclusion of additional grants for research students within major research projects may provide a way of combining the two systems. We also pointed out that engaging in supervised research is itself the most important vehicle of research training, and there is already extensive provision organised by the subject community itself in the form of seminars. Masters level students need training in research methods, but 'generic' training even within the subject was felt to be inappropriate for those already embarked on PhDs, where the 4-year time limit is already restrictive. (In that connection, the British Academy's Review of Graduate Studies in the Humanities and Social Sciences has taken note of a point that we, and no doubt others, made in responding to it last year, that the pressure for rapid completion risks a deterrent to postgraduate work in areas which require the acquisition of highly specialised skills such as epigraphy and papyrology.)

The other response we made this year was to the Call for Evidence by the Research Libraries Support Group; some of the points here echoed in a general context those already made to the AHRB in the context of the needs of postgraduate students in particular. We highlighted the continuing need for the foreseeable future for paper-based as well as electronic resources, expressed our opposition to the reduction of any university libraries to teaching-only collections, and highlighted as a priority the need for further development and improvement of the inter-library loan system.

The public profile of our subjects is a pressing concern. Thanks to the energy and initiative of Charlotte Roueché, plans are well advanced for a national 'Why Classics' website, to be jointly sponsored by the Classical Association, the Joint Association of Classical Teachers and CUCD. As well as promoting Classical subjects, it will provide links to institutional sites indicating where the subjects can be studied. Currently a working party is considering bids from institutions to host the website. Another, less welcome aspect of publicity is highlighted by the concern that member institutions have expressed about league tables of departments published in the national press; both the concept of league tables and details of the methodology by which they have been constructed can be called into question, but I have refrained as Chair from sending off instant responses or complaints in the belief - endorsed, I am glad to say, by those who have more knowledge of such matters than I - that to do so might provide an occasion for negative publicity. Any attempt to challenge either the league table mentality or the methods and assumptions involved in the tables (or both) needs to be well thought out and to be developed by a wide range of subject associations and institutions, not by one subject association alone.

The place of Classical subjects in national initiatives in secondary and indeed primary education is something of which CUCD, in association with JACT, needs to be constantly aware. We are already acting as a channel for information, for example urging member departments to consider whether they can play a role in the Excellence in Cities project and the Academy for the Gifted and the Talented. We also endorsed an appeal to departments for donations to support the Primary Latin project.

We have been putting into practice the reorganisation, agreed last year in the interests of transparency and efficiency, of the Council's mechanisms for communications and elections; thanks for this are especially due to Liz Pender as Secretary and to Graham Shipley. The extent of membership is an issue that has come to the fore once again, and fortunately so; for a number of Higher Education institutions which do not provide single-honours degrees in the classical field, but nevertheless teach some classical subjects; and as such provision regrettably disappears from some institutions new provision is appearing in others. (It remains, incidentally, one of CUCD's, and the Chair's, key roles to lobby on behalf of classical provision in institutions where it is under threat, provided that those on the spot regard this as helpful and request it). We should not spread our net so widely that we cease to be an organisation speaking for the specifically classical interest in UK universities (we might, for example, not want to include every institution teaching New Testament Greek in the context of biblical studies); but, that said, the Standing Committee feels we should be as inclusive as possible. The practical problem is being alerted to new provision when it appears; here the 'Why Classics?' website should help, as institutions introducing Classical provision will want to request a link from it, if it develops in the way we hope it will.

Looking into the future: what will the next major issue be? One such, at any rate, will be the link between undergraduate teaching and research. This is being challenged from several directions: from the natural and medical sciences, where it may indeed be the case that research and undergraduate teaching have very little in common; by the separate evaluation and funding systems for the two activities; by staff (and I am not here thinking of those teaching classical subjects) who believe that the way to strengthen the position of their own institutions is to argue that those which engage in extensive research are ipso facto less interested in, or capable of, teaching; by those who rightly believe that in the past research has been favoured over teaching where promotions are concerned, and wrongly infer from this that the solution is to present the two as antithetical; by the increasing amount of teaching being done by staff on short-term and part-time teaching-only contracts, resulting partly but not entirely from new patterns of research funding; and perhaps also by students (and former students influential in public life) who have, for reasons that it would take too long to go into here, increasingly come to see education as, and expect and require it to be, the delivery and receipt of a predefined package required to obtain good grades, rather than as open-ended enquiry.


I was about 13 years old when the lesson was brought home to me that it was no good saying I did not possess a particular piece of general knowledge about ancient Greece because no-one had told me in so many words that that specific piece of knowledge was one I needed. One wonders at what age that realisation typically dawns now. Students of course need to know what they will be assessed on, and assessment must reflect teaching, but it should do so in a way that encourages enquiry and originality of thought rather than discouraging it. The communication of research to an undergraduate audience can promote interest and excitement; and conversely most readers of this Bulletin, I suspect, will have had the experience of a chance thought that comes up in the course of discussion with students sparking off some promising line of research. It is an old truism to say that the best way to learn something is to teach it; to say that one should not teach something until one has learned it is to impose a false dichotomy. The interaction between teaching and research, in both directions, must be preserved as an essential part of our subject.

The opinions expressed in this report reflect my own personal views, and are not necessarily those of the Council or of my institution.

My own department has found that in internal documents it has had to follow the long-established practice in College committees of placing at the start of each one a guide to the acronyms therein contained, aka alphabet soup. Here I have preferred to follow the less daunting practice of spelling out each acronym - at least the first time it is used. This Bulletin does after all have readers outside the jargon-filled world of U(nited) K(ingdom) H(igher) E(ducation).

R. W. Sharples
University College, London
October, 2001

CUCD Bulletin 30 (2001)
© Council of University Classical Departments 2001

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