The Threat of the Classroom

The Threat of the Classroom

25 Aug 2008

Professor David Spencer

First published in the The Australian on 20 August, 2008.

The ill-fated Research Quality Framework (RQF) set up by the previous government and murdered within days of the current government's ascendancy put academics on notice to improve their research output and strive for impact and quality – whatever that meant.

However, the RQF caused more damage than simply wasting a few million of taxpayers' dollars.

Whether it sought to or not, RQF promoted the importance of research over teaching by shifting the focus of activity to accessing government funds through research outputs. More importantly, it validated the unnecessary competition between research over teaching or teaching over research. In short, it did nothing to promote the nexus between teaching and research and to value both as equally important core activities of a university.

Even in the post-RQF and pre-ERA (Excellence in Research for Australia) period, little is being done to balance the importance of both teaching and research to the life of the providers of those core activities and the beneficiaries our students.

It will take a generation of change to dissemble the notion that teaching is a punishment meted out to academics who cannot or do not want to research. Although it seems counterintuitive for an academic not to shout from the rooftops her or his latest discovery – and there is no better venue for doing that than a lecture theatre – academe still seems fearful of the classroom.

So why does the class room threaten academics?

I think the answer is threefold.

Firstly, good teaching requires you to live life in the fast lane of a very public highway. Academics do not get to choose who their audiences are. Rightly or wrongly, a collection of skilled bureaucrats at university and admissions authority level take that decision away from academics – sometimes with the single priority of merely bolstering the scholarly standing of the university in the eyes of the community itself. Yet the expectations of our largely randomly selected audience – random in the sense that the only thing they have in common is an entry score – are quite high given students have less time for study and are paying more for the privilege - the latter being largely responsible for the former.

Our ability to teach well is reflected in the very public faces of our audiences. We put ourselves "out there" every time we step into a class room and expose ourselves to public scrutiny over whether we do our job well or poorly. This is of course a dangerous yet exciting process.

If you do not believe the public nature of the work of academics as teachers then enter your name or your university's name in or other well-known public cyberspaces and view the results with some amusement or anger depending on the degree that you take yourself seriously.

Research on the other hand is not, generally speaking, an overly public experience. Compare how many thousands of students the average academic teaches in a career against how many people read that journal article on whether John Stuart Mill's poetic continuation of the Iliad could have set him on a different career path despite his father's influence! I do not seek to diminish the importance of such an article I merely seek to juxtapose the public nature of our work.

So when the choice is given to engage in work that is largely solitary and transportable in terms of the venue of execution and the time scheduled to complete it, most academics would probably prefer the research option over the teaching option. When the choice is given to engage in work that is largely "faceless" and often a matter of opinion or interpretation, most academics would probably prefer the research option over the teaching option.

The second reason why academics see the classroom as being a threat is because it is easier to just ignore the issue as it will not make any difference to the security of tenure that most academics enjoy.

A combination of a continuing appointment formerly known as "tenure" and the average university enterprise agreement mean that academics cannot be easily dismissed. While improvements in teaching feature in some annual performance review schemes for academic staff, they do not threaten the livelihood of academics in any real sense. So there really is not any tangible pressure to change a habit of a lifetime in teaching poorly.

If academics are performing satisfactorily in other areas of their job, it is easier to blame the students for poor teaching and learning results by putting the well-worn case that, "It is the students' fault – they just don't get it". Some academics and even in some universities as a faculty-wide policy, take the dumb-down approach by making it easier to pass the units and degree program in the hope that teaching evaluations will never highlight poor teaching practices. This last strategy works up until the point in time when one set of academics, not in on the joke, mark a piece of work on its merits have their marks rolled by the bureaucracy and in anger leak it to the media. This strategy of reducing the threat of the class room by passing everybody kills two birds with one stone because it also assists international student retention rates.

The final reason why academics see the classroom as being a threat is the risk management assessment of teaching compared to research.

When it comes to research outputs, academics essentially "live or die by the keyboard". In most cases, the blind referees largely determine whether in a scholarly sense you are held in high esteem or condemned to obscurity and defeat by carrying the tag, "Oh Professor Soandso never had an article published in the Journal of Prestigious Journal Articles (JPJA)". Because the refereeing process is confidential, Professor Soandso can bluff the academic community into thinking that she or he did not consider the JPJA as ever being good enough for his or her genius – a strategy that should easily last through to retirement if not life Emeritus. If Professor Soandso can live with her or himself then the planets will stay in alignment and Professor Soandso's genius will never be questioned.

Questioning one's genius is somewhat more objective and transparent when it comes to teaching and can be accurately described as "death by a thousand cuts".

Death by teaching is public, humiliating, slow and painful. Interestingly nearly every academic, brilliant or not so brilliant, has experienced death by teaching. For the brilliant teachers reading this tome, think of your first few lectures twenty or more years ago. For the not so brilliant teachers, think of that lecture you gave twenty minutes ago when students were either asleep, playing bubble burst on their mobile phones or simply leaving by droves if indeed they bothered to attend in the first place.

Like the public execution conducted long ago, death by teaching is conducted in the public domain in lecture theatres tiered to give spectators the best views of the tragic demise of yet another academic. It is humiliating because of the obvious lack of connection and engagement being experienced by students with the material and/or the academic. In addition, the student network is devastatingly efficient at exposing the weaknesses of those set the task of teaching. It is slow because it usually comes in two hour blocks or if the academic is lucky in one hour blocks spread over somewhere between 10 and 13 weeks. It is painful because of the unjustifiable feeling of inadequacy experienced by the dying academic.

So if the choice comes down to a slow, humiliating, painful and public death on the floor of a lecture theatre or the possibility of a small number of academic colleagues possibly questioning your genius because you have not yet cracked it for an article in the JPJA – which option do you think most academics would choose?

Of course the answer is that the threat of the classroom wins again and most academics lock themselves in their offices so they can keep rolling the dice on cracking the illusive JPJA.

But of course it need not be that way. The upsides of challenging the threat of the classroom are enormous.

Firstly, the pleasure of intellectually connecting with students and engaging with them in the unit being taught is beyond description. To borrow and then butcher the catchphrase of the current Mastercard advertising campaign - seeing the light go on in the minds of students or witnessing the feeling of satisfaction students have when they have achieved something beyond what they thought they could achieve … is priceless!

That pedagogical breakthrough aside, the sheer boost to an academic's ego and confidence is a feeling to behold. Only those that have walked out of a lecture knowing it was a success because of the high level of student engagement can attest to that feeling.

Secondly, improving teaching and learning outcomes can capture significant financial rewards. The federal government has announced a pool of $74.4 million in the Learning and Teaching Performance Fun (LTPF) for 2009 to distribute amongst Australia's 38 universities based upon a measure of excellence and improvement in learning and teaching undergraduate students. Both measures will rely on student surveys that only question student satisfaction rates as opposed to institutional change to learning and teaching however, let us not embark upon the shortcomings of the way the funds are divided as after all, at least we are still playing the same game.

The point is that in 2008 twenty-three universities received funds ranging from $500,000 up to $10,554,205 from the LTPF. These are significant sums of money that can assist universities to achieve significant gains in learning and teaching. If such funding can produce change in learning and teaching in a university then such funds can make academics feel better about themselves and their jobs and create a better learning experience for our students.

All of the above leads to a third outcome — that of recognition and celebrating excellence in teaching through internal and external competitive teaching awards. Academics do not get much praise for the good work they do. Win a gold medal at the Olympics and you can get a free Holden Commodore and almost a life time of sponsoring breakfast cereals. However, if you are a reflective teacher that prides yourself on excellent teaching practices you get very little in return other than the priceless pedagogical satisfaction I referred to a moment ago – which for most of us admittedly is reward enough. Fortunately, you can now put yourself in the running for an internal teaching award and your university can nominate you for a teaching award from the Australian Learning and Teaching Council.

Professor David Spencer
Associate Dean (Academic)
Faculty of Law & Management
La Trobe University.




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