Teaching and research: a happy synergy

The winners of Trinity’s 2015-16 Teaching Awards, Professor John Lister and Dr Neil Hopkinson, explain what teaching does for them.

Professor Lister

What do you gain from College teaching?

John Lister_jpg
Professor Lister

Foremost is simply the fact that I enjoy it. Undergraduate lectures, until the smaller class sizes in Part III, just don’t give the same opportunity for direct interaction with individual students as the one-on-two situation of College supervisions. The problem-solving aspect of mathematics is fun, or should be! I find it rewarding to prompt the flashes of insight and pleasure in supervisees as they suddenly realise how to do a tricky question they had been stuck on. It also keeps my own brain sharp to be fostering mathematical creativity and ‘cleverness’ in my students – some of whom it is hard to stay ahead of – and to have to teach a range of courses.

How important is your teaching compared to your research?

Jesus Lock, The Backs, Speedboat on a lake, Bubbles in Champagne
Fluid mechanics in daily life. Photographs: N Chadwick, Meredith Hadfield, Edmont, Bonum Vinum

This question is often posed as if teaching and research are distinct and in opposition to each other, rather than a happy synergy. Much of my research is conducted in collaboration with research students, who have themselves recently come up through the Mathematical Tripos. Our discussions of possible ways forward on a problem are not dissimilar to supervisions, with the exception that often I don’t know the answer either! We need to puzzle over ideas together, making full use of the mathematical instincts and toolkit that the Tripos develops. At a slightly earlier stage, I’ve found that the Trinity summer-project scheme for undergraduates provides a brilliant learning opportunity for students and stimulates my own research at the same time.

Do you have a favourite aspect of Mathematics that you particularly enjoy teaching? 

My favourite subject is, of course, my own field of Fluid Mechanics. Cambridge abounds with opportunities to encourage mathematicians to lift their eyes from pencil and paper, and look at bubbles in champagne, the wake behind a duck, the flow of the Cam or the ‘legs’ in a glass of fine wine, and think what a good thing that breathing and blood circulation keeps me alive so I can ask how does that all work!

As an undergraduate, I became fascinated by the way that everyday physical phenomena lead to interesting mathematical problems which, once one has found the solution, give insight into the mechanisms underlying the original observations. The angle of the duck’s wake and the breaking of waves on a beach are explained by the mathematics of linear and nonlinear wave equations. I now enjoy showing new generations that Applied Mathematics should have applications to deserve the name, whether to astrophysics, biology, climate change, or punting.

Dr Neil Hopkinson 

What do you gain from teaching?

Dr Neil Hopkinson

Cambridge is rightly famous for its close relationship between teaching and research. Even in years when I do not supervise on literary works which are the subject of my research (Greek poetry of the Hellenistic period, for example), I certainly find that the linguistic detail and literary approaches which I use in research for published work constantly shed light on subjects on the syllabus. And – vice versa – texts, monographs and articles which I read as preparation for supervisions illuminate the authors I research.

How important is your teaching compared to your research?

An excerpt of a 15th-century manuscript of the comic playwright Aristophanes
15th-century manuscript of the comic playwright Aristophanes. This once belonged to the famous Classicist and Fellow of Trinity, Richard Porson and it was donated to the College by H Montagu Butler, who was Master of Trinity, 1886-1918.

Over the course of a year I try to devote about half my time to teaching and half to research. Teaching takes up most of the terms, and research most of the vacations. But it’s usually possible to keep up with research to some extent during term: less time needs to be spent in the UL now that many older books are available online, and the work I publish can for the most part be composed in odd moments during a busy term. On the other hand, the Classics Faculty has a healthy policy of changing its syllabuses regularly, so that I spend some time in the vacations preparing new courses.

Do you have a favourite aspect of Classics that you particularly enjoy teaching?

Since the retirement of Dr Dawe some years ago, I have been teaching more Textual Criticism, a special paper for Part II in Classics. Supervisions for this are varied in nature. The paper focusses on how the texts of the ancient authors have been transmitted. Most of them are preserved in mediaeval manuscripts which contain copyists’ careless errors of every description. Textual critics have worked for centuries to establish the family relationships between the manuscripts of each author and to eliminate by conjecture or comparison the errors which they contain.  Study for this paper means engaging with the history of scholarship from antiquity to the present day. It also involves reading facsimiles of the manuscripts themselves. These are often difficult to decipher at first, but with regular practice students with good Greek and Latin can soon be reading a manuscript of Sophocles or Catullus with surprising fluency.

A drawing of the statute of Apollo
16th-century drawing of a Roman sculpture of Apollo, R.17.3, is viewable in the Wren Digital Library.

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