A couple of blog posts ago, mountainsnowtiger left a long comment which I thought was worth highlighting and thinking about a bit. She (sorry if you’re a bloke by the way mst, I just always imagine you as a girl!) said:
Is there any solution to the fact that unis need to teach little students general info as well as letting big clever people do important academic stuff they’re passionate about?
(I ask this because your post comes a couple of weeks after I listened to two of my fellow students discussing a particular academic who works at the (fairly high-ranking) uni I’ve now ended up at. The academic in question is a scientist. It used to be the case that the final year undergrad students could choose between this guy’s course and various other courses and on their exams they could choose whether or not to answer a question in this guy’s subject area. The result was that this guy got no people attending his undergrad courses and no people answering his exam qus, hence his colleagues ended up with far more than their fair share of undergrad teaching and marking to do. The rumours are that this year the undergrad finalists will be forced to take at least one course by him and to answer at least one of his exam qus. Apparently every year students’ feedback forms say that this guy’s undergrad teaching is truly appalling and every year he gets told to sort it out. But the uni can’t actually do anything when he doesn’t sort it out (year after year), because his research is in some area which means he personally attracts an e-nor-mous pot of funding for his department, so they’re never going to get rid of him no matter how naff his undergrad teaching is. Obviously, that’s a story about one person needlessly being a complete PITA for his colleagues and students, but it seems like it’s symptomatic of the more general issue, which is that people enthused enough to be researching stuff get really bored and fed-up teaching the basics to undergrad students. Is there any solution?)
The short, sitting-on-the-fence answer is I don’t know (!). It is a problem – obviously this is an extreme example, but I can well believe it’s not the only example of this sort of thing going on. Being a head-of-department/head-of-faculty must be a nightmare for precisely this reason. I wonder if the solution would be a kind of two-tier system – having some academics who just do research/money-making stuff (we have one in my dept who brings in shedloads of money, and he does hardly any teaching at all, even though he’s actually not a bad teacher like the guy in mst’s example), and others who do a combination of research and teaching, and actually have them on different wage scales and contracts. It is a huge minefield, but I’m thinking about what happened a few years back in the NHS, when they introduced Agenda for Change – where all jobs were basically measured against a set of criteria, with the aim of introducing equal pay for equivalent work. It wasn’t an ideal situation, but I think that it is something that could – maybe – be considered in academia.
One of the reasons I don’t much enjoy the teaching I’m doing at the moment is that I honestly don’t think I’m that good at it (that was the reason I didn’t enjoy teaching English as a Foreign Language years ago as well). And I think that that’s not fair on my students. Actually I do get good feedback from them, so I think there is quite a big element of beating-self-up/being too hard on myself, etc, but for me I’m aware that it’s not just about me me me, and that for the students their own learning is important too, so it’s important for them that their tutors/lecturers are committed to the learning and development of their students as well as to their own research. That’s why I’m not intending to apply for a straight academic lecturing post in a high-ranking university when I finish my PhD – I would definitely consider doing so if it was just pure research with minimal teaching, but I just know that I would feel like I was resenting the students for taking me away from the stuff I love doing (ie the research). And that’s not fair on them.
That’s not to say that I wouldn’t teach ever again. I’ve always said I’d like to do some tutoring with the Open University (I did my masters degree with them), and recently I’ve started toying with the idea of teaching on nursing courses (something I said I’d never do!). In much of my nurse (and HV) training the standard of teaching wasn’t that great, but when I think about the stuff I’m interested in – sociology, research, ethics, amongst other things – those are subjects I could get enthused about passing on to students, and teach well. And it would also provide me with an academic home from which I could continue to do research as well, but with teaching that I enjoy rather than teaching that I resent.
Going back to mst’s situation – as I’ve got off the subject and started talking about myself again (!) – I’m not sure of the way round a) making the guy’s teaching a better experience for his undergrads and b) making the burden of marking between different courses and lecturers fairer. It sounds like by making the guy’s course compulsory the dept is trying to at least solve problem b) up to a point, but it does nothing to solve a). And when the money his research is bringing in is probably paying the salaries of his colleagues, there’s probably only so much they can do. Here’s a question for the academics here – are there any journals dedicated to further/higher education management issues? In the NHS there’s the Health Service Journal (I think that’s what it’s called) which is a bit newsy but which covered all the various thorny health service management debates. I ask as I’m sure the issue of poor teaching/great research with $$$ will have been raised over time immemorial, and surely there must be lots of suggestions and debates on how to approach this.
I think that in my dept *I* am the solution to problem b)!! Essay questions are set by a number of lecturers, but there are always one or two questions which nearly everybody goes for, which means that before I was employed, the lecturer that set those questions had tons of essays to mark while the others maybe only had a handful. Now they’ve got me, I just mark the lot – problem solved (except for me!). I actually think it is better for the students, in that having spoken with the lecturers who set the questions about their expectations I realised that some leant much more to being generous with their marks than others, whereas with me doing all of them they get consistent marking whichever question is chosen. However – the course I tutor on is the level 1 (1st year) course so doesn’t count towards the degree – by the time you get to final year getting the department GTA (graduate teaching assistant) to do this is out of the question. And (without wanting to sound too modest) I think my dept has been very lucky with me, as I’ve got enough nous and life experience and common sense to deal with the crap and work out ways of dealing with it which will make it easier for the next GTA who starts next year. I just need to work out the best way of selling what has been a bit of a crap experience into CV-worthy impressiveness that would make me an ideal employee for when I start applying for jobs again 🙂