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25 October: Teaching

Published onJul 09, 2019
25 October: Teaching

Academics should see themselves first as teachers. In my view any faculty member working in a university who doesn’t like teaching or goes to every effort to minimize their contact with students should really consider doing something else. Students are our first public and often our most important audience and some of them are also our future colleagues. There is something deeply troubling in the extent to which the priorities of university life – despite the rhetoric of teaching quality and research-led teaching – make teaching an activity of secondary importance.

There is no doubt that the commodification of higher learning has transformed the student experience. They not only have to save up and pay for studying but as a consequence students more and more see themselves as consumers. ‘I needed to get a 2.1 in your class’, complains the student on receiving his grade of 52. The complaint is not simply connected to an unfulfilled aspiration but he feels he is owed a return on the cold hard cash he has paid in student fees. Regardless of these changes and all the things that go can wrong in the classroom there are still those precious moments. It doesn’t happen all the time but it is when the teacher in that moment has somehow caught the imagination of the whole group. You can feel a dense silence that hangs over the room almost as if everyone in the lecture hall has stopped breathing. It is hard to put a price tag on that deep attentive silence and it is why teaching still matters.

On 22 April 2008 the University of Warwick’s innovative Reinvention Centre for Undergraduate Research hosted an exhibition created by Cath Lambert and Elisabeth Simbuerger called ‘Teaching and Learning in and for a Complex World’. It aimed to open up a dialogue around teaching and scholarship. Attending the launch at The Teaching Grid in Warwick’s central library I was struck by how the sentiments that adorned its smooth glass surfaces seemed out of step with the priorities of the twenty-first-century British university. Along the glass walls leading into the exhibition a quotation from Joseph Beuys in bold letters proclaimed: ‘To be a teacher is my greatest work of art.’

A sound installation called ‘Sociologists Talking’ formed a key part of the exhibition, drawn from interviews conducted by Elisabeth Simbuerger with sociologists about their work, teaching and aspirations. The installation offered an opportunity to eavesdrop on the conversations that we are all having with our colleagues, friends and even ourselves about the state of the academy. Each set of headphones was connected to a digital voice recorder with twenty minutes of talk looped continuously. Actors reconstructed the voices in order to protect the anonymity of the participants and the interview transcripts were performed as in a play. All the ‘informants’/‘characters’ were drawn from a single department in a university from the Russell Group. Only Elisabeth was identifiable; she played herself.

Regardless of the priority given to research and publishing, most of those recorded said that teaching gave them a sense of intellectual purpose. Sociology here is valued for its ability to question that which is assumed and normalized. Teaching offers a kind of intellectual sociability which, in the words of one contributor, ‘militates against the isolation . . . which is quite inherent to [the] academic work of research’. The impetus so often is to encourage a search for research funds that enables being ‘bought out of teaching’ in order to dedicate time to research and writing. Like most interview data, Simbuerger’s might be best interpreted as a moral tale, a reflection of the speaker’s principles rather than a description of their daily choices and routines. Regardless, such a sentiment reveals the first paradox: the educational ethos may value teaching highly but academic success necessitates a quest to minimize the amount of time spent in the classroom.

Another set of voice recordings within the exhibition was entitled ‘Teaching for Complexity’. This sequence of quotations concerned the issue of what university education is needed for in our time. The task, the interviewees suggested, is to engender an ‘enthusiasm for learning’ but also to encourage students to lead what one respondent called ‘an examinant life’.

Education, the voices suggested, is not simply an invitation to engage with life differently, but also an invitation to reside in books and dwell within the abstract landscape of theoretical ideas.

I mean, ‘How do you learn to live in a text?’ is like saying ‘How do you learn to live in a new city?’ How do you learn to live there? Well, when you first live there your knowledge of it is very superficial, yeah. There are all sorts of things in it that you don’t know and that you are therefore not receptive to or appreciative of.

This analogy was developed further. Like an unfamiliar city, theoretical ideas can be initially confusing and disorientating. Students need to get lost in order to find something of value and this takes time, effort and commitment. The relationship to theoretical reading is summed up beautifully by one contributor as ‘the difference between getting information out of a text and living in it’.

Yet, the pressure placed on students to do paid work throughout their university education undermines such a level of engagement with ideas. Students are not going to find paid employment living in the city of books. Many of our educational ideals were defined in an era before student fees and loans, when many of us who are now members of the sociological professoriate – myself included – benefited from free university education. This difference is communicated powerfully in the film Students at Work produced as part of the exhibition.

In a time when education is a commodity, little wonder that students are goal-oriented and have an instrumental view of education. Therein lies another paradox: some of our most dearly held educational values are in direct conflict with the economic and practical conditions within which teaching takes place. As a result, the pressure and temptation to simplify the curriculum and make courses less demanding and more ‘student friendly’ militates against the commitment to spend time with difficult ideas.

The sentiments articulated in this installation sum up the fraught nature of the choices and accommodations that we face. A contributor set out the choice in the following stark terms:

I think most people at a university like this recognize that if you want to get a career, if you want to advance, if you want promotion, it doesn’t matter how good or innovative a teacher you are, it counts for nothing really. You’re much better getting publications, a reputation at conferences, PhD students, than you are getting a reputation as a great teacher of undergraduates, that’s my view.

The quantitative measurement of academic value and performance are a part of the increased marketization of the sector. The auditing of research undercuts the place of teaching within an academic vocation, fostering instead a disciplined careerism that is both self-involved and by implication ridden with anxiety.

That quantitative measure has meant in effect that most of us have been pushed into a position of either saying ‘I don’t care about a career, I’m really interested in teaching students or you have to say ‘If I care about a career I’ve got to publish stuff.’ And to publish in our present conditions of work means neglecting other things, and unfortunately teaching is one of the easiest to neglect, because there aren’t really any direct forms of accountability.

The impact of universities being dependent on increased student fees for their income is adding another dimension to this situation. Marina Warner’s tale of why in 2014 she quit her job as Professor in the Department of Literature, Film and Theatre Studies at the University of Essex after ten years indicates another twist. Under pressure from Essex Vice Chancellor Anthony Foster – who has a military background – faculty were pressed to turn their priorities away from research and publication and the Research Excellent Framework towards teaching and increased student recruitment as a way of generating more income. Sounding like a character from Frank Parkin’s campus satire The Mind and Body Shop, Foster put his dismay bluntly when he said at a public meeting: ‘These REF stars – they don’t earn their keep.’ This way of prioritizing teaching is little more than a commercial imperative with nothing to do with the ethics of learning and teaching. Evidently all appeals to value teaching are not necessarily good for life of the mind.

Neither is it the case that all pleas to value research have a progressive impact on knowledge. The injunction to produce more research doesn’t necessarily result in more communication. Perhaps the ultimate indictment contained here is that the profusion of sociological literature that results from making research the ultimate priority finds limited if any readership.

People write books and nobody reads them, thousands of journals that nobody reads. However, students are real people, and they come and they are expecting some degree of quality in what they get at university. And I have to say, many people who are employed as university teachers, in my view, don’t give that quality. They regard teaching as something secondary to the great adventure of discovering new knowledge that no one is interested in.

Academic writing in this characterization is little more than a language game, prestige without value, knowledge that does little to nourish the imagination or even command attention. Such a characterization is resonant of Lindsay Waters’s damning critique of academic publishing in America. As an executive editor for Harvard University Press, Waters has monitored shifts in academic life from inside the belly of the beast. The result, he argues, is the overproduction of ‘unread’ and ‘unloved’ books. He suggests academic books are not written now to be read or loved, rather they are written to be counted. The concern to communicate ideas is trumped by the requirement to get jobs, secure tenure and establish a reputation. Academic overproduction means that reputations are made in fleeting assessments, not judged through careful erudition but based on speed-reading or second-hand judgements – ‘I have a friend who read that book and they hated it!’ Certain judgements made with minimal knowledge.

Let me sum up: at least three paradoxes could be heard in the voices of Simbuerger’s university teachers. First, while teaching is valued as a connection to what Michael Burawoy refers to as our first public (i.e. students), academic success necessitates keeping that contact to a minimum. Second, our most dearly held education values – such as the importance of ‘living in books’ and exploring difficult ideas – are proving harder to sustain in the face of the priorities that take time away from learning and teaching. Third, the injunction to write more academically leads to less academic writing actually being read. Are these open secrets? If they are then no wonder that the dominant atmosphere in universities is timidity and quietism. Perhaps we can’t quite believe, or accept, what we have become. Teaching remains an antidote in my view because it offers those precious heavy silences where we are thinking together and when everyone is holding their breath.

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