|Teach Your Best - A Handbook for University Lecturers|
|CHAPTER 8 - RESEARCH AND PUBLICATIONS|
In many countries, universities are considered to be a valuable asset. Besides training high-level manpower, they are expected to organize and manage knowledge. This is clearly spelt out in the various university acts. Here, we can do no better than quote the University of Nairobi Act of 1985 which defines the functions and objectives of that university as being, among other things, to participate in discovery, transmission and preservation of knowledge and to stimulate the intellectual and cultural development of Kenya'. From this perspective, universities are seen as instruments of development in that, through research, they provide a body of fundamental knowledge which assists in the attempt to seek answers to the myriad pressing national problems. Undoubtedly, fundamental knowledge is the key to technological development. Conversely, an inadequate stock of knowledge stymies attempts to find solutions to such problems.
In the African context, universities are probably the only viable institutions which can provide inventive development ideas and knowledge. As think-tanks, they can offer practical answers to assist African countries to achieve their economic, educational, cultural and social objectives. That is the theory: the practice is rather different.
In recent years, the public has been disenchanted by the quality of research being undertaken in universities and other institutions. You have probably heard or read about cases of research misconduct reported by the mass media in North America, Europe, Australia and, of course, Africa itself. Indeed, cases of plagiarism have even been reported from institutions that have hitherto been considered as citadels of academic excellence.
Turning to Africa, donor agency circles are replete with all manner of unflattering stories about the behaviour of African researchers. They are quite often accused, for example, of pocketing research cheques and promptly disappearing into thin air only to turn up with shoddy research results towards the end of their contract. On other occasions, they are accused of 'cooking' data or not even bothering to carry out any research work at all.
More often than not, policy makers seem to pay scant attention to research results from universities. They argue that these institutions provide irrelevant information and that even then it mostly arrives too late. Moreover, the information is also considered to be on many occasions biased, inaccurate and non-confirmable. Worse still, academics are accused of being too theoretical, insensitive to practical and political realities, and dismissive of the financial implications of their half-baked proposals. Is it a wonder, then, that policy makers are so skeptical of the contribution that can be made by academics?
Even at your own university, it is probable that all has not been plain sailing. For example, postgraduate students often feel that their supervisors are not effectively discharging their duties. They claim that these academics are cold, aloof and regard those they are supposed to guide as an unmitigated nuisance. In other words, they have no interest at all in their students, let alone their research topics. Consequently, supervisors provide little or no advice or practical assistance. Above all, it is said that they are hardly ever in their offices. Many take forever to read drafts submitted to them, and this is done in such a perfunctory manner as to make their comments of little value. Some supervisors lack research experience and, therefore, have no relevant skills or knowledge to impart to their students who, in turn, complete mediocre theses through no fault of their own. Worse still, some deliberately delay or prevent the timely completion of theses through such unbecoming tactics.
However, you should not assume that this problem is confined to Africa alone. In Britain, for example, funding bodies have become considerably irritated by the apparent inability of postgraduate students to complete their studies in the stipulated time schedule. Their dissatisfaction has led them to make fresh scholarship awards to individual universities contingent upon a satisfactory rate of completion.
On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, a related but different problem exists. In the United States, postgraduate students, particularly those In the Teaching Assistant category, complain of outright exploitation by their professors. They argue that they are deliberately overburdened with work so that their professors can have more free time for Individual research. Even worse, they contend that American professors are so preoccupied with their own research and preparation of publications that they have little interest in or time for teaching.
Yet, when all is said and done, research plays a pivotal role in universities. At the personal level, promotion is to a large extent dependent upon academic output. Hence the often quoted publish-or-perish rule. Nevertheless, research is by no means everybody's cup of tea. Some lecturers undergo the agony of conducting research only because it is required of them. Others are excruciatingly irritated by the formalities that accompany such projects.
But take heart. Albert Einstein did not impress his professors sufficiently enough to be appointed to an academic post. The poor man had to seek the solace of the drudgery of a civil service job in a Swiss patent office. You, of course, know who had the last laugh. Einstein was determined enough to pursue his scientific research interests to the eventual amazement of the scientific community that had cold-shouldered him. This chapter does not promise to turn you into an Einstein. It merely hopes to offer guidelines on how you can go about conducting your own research as well as effectively assisting your students in that endeavour. To do so, it will cover the salient features that you need to know in order to successfully perform your dual role of a researcher and supervisor. Of necessity, our coverage will be fairly brief, but we hope that this will act as an appetizer to entice you to embark on further reading.