“Sometimes I wonder what I am doing here“.
A sentiment that can be heard from time to time in the corridors of academia. Young and enthusiastic academics are often drawn to a working life in universities because they are passionate about their subject, they love to teach, or they enjoy the cut and thrust of intellectual debate and the possibility of moving the frontiers of knowledge. I rarely hear anyone say that they came into the role because they love sitting on committees or they are fascinated by the implementation of regulations. You see where I am going here. Many of the distractions of academic life are necessary, but they can be overwhelming, and sometimes they seem to suck the energy away from the things we enjoy doing – such as teaching.
Recently reading some sections of a book by Fanghanel (2012), there are some sections which resonate strongly with conversations that I have been having recently with colleagues on teaching development programmes. The “I pitch, you catch” view of teaching, Fanghanel’s short hand for the “student as consumer” mode of teaching, seems to present a multitude of problems which appear to be at odds with the aspirations of many new university teachers.
Fanghanel’s comments on the use of constructive alignment and adherence to learning outcomes, and the way in which this assumes the curriculum presents a package that is entirely predictable, representing a consumer’s contract or guarantee of “quality”. This is a bit like going into MacDonalds anywhere in the world – you know exactly what you are going to get. Predictable, but unexciting. Whereas venturing into one of the local cafés might present you with something more memorable.
So how did we ever arrive here? How have centres of creativity and innovation become so homogenized? Can we just blame politics and economics or have academics lost sight of the things that brought them into higher education?
I have overheard conversations about research. Disillusioned colleagues “chasing money they don’t want, to undertake research they are not interested in, to publish papers that no one wants to read. The only important thing is the amount of money you bring in, not what the research actually achieves.” That sounds pretty depressing. If that is the reality, then any curriculum that is research-led (as claimed by most UK universities on their web pages), seems doomed to present a disengaged, consumerist view of the discipline. It seems we need to be careful about what we claim, as there may be alternative interpretations that do not present the values we intend. In the depressing scenario presented above, a “research-led curriculum” might be interpreted as a “money-led curriculum”, and this would only feed in to the unease about tuition fees etc.
There are a number of very interesting quotes from Fanghanel’s research that would be useful to start a discussion about the point of teaching, either within your department, on within a faculty development programme.
Fanghanel, J. (2012) Being an academic. London, Routledge.