Exploring Professionalism

April 16, 2009

As this review is for Times Higher Education, I will confine myself to the question "Are academics professional?"

That wisest of all vice-chancellors, Eric Ashby, touched twice in his life on this subject. In 1963, he criticised the way that academics handled what might be called administrative tasks. "All over the country these groups of scholars who would not make a decision about the shape of a leaf or the derivation of a word or the author of a manuscript without painstakingly assembling the evidence, make decisions about admissions policy, size of universities, staff-student ratios, content of courses and similar issues, based on dubious assumptions, scrappy data and mere hunch."

So far, so good. But then - 20 years later - he opined as follows: "For many years I taught in universities. Like most academics I assumed that the only qualification I needed was expertise in the discipline in its own right, but I never gave it much thought. I marked thousands of examination scripts without examining what the scripts could teach me about my capacity as a teacher and examiner."

Many years later, I gave an inaugural lecture on the subject "Is university teaching researchable?" and found that many in my audience, all eminent researchers in their fields, did not think so.

This astonishing blindness towards treating teaching in universities in a manner that is similar to teaching in any other circumstances clearly prevents university teachers from being professional as teachers, an issue that is not addressed in this book. Furthermore, even when nowadays university teachers take introductory courses in teaching and learning, these are rarely if ever of the sophistication of disciplinary courses for undergraduates. Until all university teachers take full courses in university teaching and examining at a postgraduate level, they are not professional. These courses must be based on up-to-date research in teaching and examining, which goes well beyond research into current teaching and examining, since that can tell us largely only what not to do.

To illustrate this last point, there is still a major stress on teaching through lectures, although the invention of moveable type more than 500 years ago made routine lecturing redundant. (The value of the inspirational one-off lecture, such as the Royal Institution's Christmas lectures is a totally different matter; the fact that William Lawrence Bragg used his experience of such inspirational one-off lectures to pontificate about lectures in general is typical of the amateurish way that teaching problems in universities are mostly addressed.)

Current judgments on the quality of university assessment and of the assessment of university teaching are equally suspect. However, there is now a small group of university teachers, largely concentrated in the Staff and Educational Development Association and in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning movement, who know that teaching not only has to be better, but different and better. So there is hope that 30 years from now we will be able to speak of teaching excellence. At present, university teaching is about as professional as doctoring was in the days of the doctor-barber.

This book has much to say about professionalism in other professions, from which academics can profit if they themselves want to achieve a greater professionalism, but they should at the same time try to avoid George Bernard Shaw's not wholly unjustified jibe that all professions are conspiracies against the laity.

In the meantime, the fact that there are copious references in this book on teaching but only one reference on learning is depressing - even within the limits of what is possible today.

Exploring Professionalism

Edited by Bryan Cunningham. Institute of Education, 224pp, £18.99. ISBN 9780854738052. Published 1 September 2008

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