From where I sit: Accentuating the positive

December 3, 2009

I am constantly reading (and writing) about the negatives of tertiary education today: universities are now merely businesses; grammatical standards have slipped; young people are ignoramuses who don't know how much they don't know; doctorates are not what they used to be ... and so on.

But there are positive things to say, too, and since this is the season of goodwill, I'm going to devote this column to celebrating some of them.

I'll start with student-tutor communication. It's great how we can use email to sort out concerns, problems, requests for essay extensions and the like. That way, it doesn't matter if students are overseas during a break or if academics are working from home: we can always be in contact.

I can post articles and any other items of interest as they come to hand on the unit website, and students can get quick answers to queries, too. There's no excuse for their not having the unit guide or assignment information - they are on the website. If they can't make a lecture, there's always an audio version.

We still deal with large amounts of paper at Australian universities. The ones I'm involved with still require assignments to be handed in as hard copies, then marked and physically returned to students. But this is about to change.

Within the next couple of years, surely, electronic submission will be phased in for assignments and, one hopes, keyboard-based examinations will be introduced, not the hopelessly outdated handwritten ones we still have.

Each generates thousands of pages from executed, pulped and bleached trees that are then thrown away, many of them wasted in exam booklets that are rarely fully used. We have the technology to change: we just need the funds to make it happen.

Thinking of handwritten exams brings me to another advantage of technology: assignments are done on word processors, so we don't have to decipher students' handwriting.

I always disliked having to keep "office hours" - that's why I became a journalist. Nowadays, though, journalists spend most of their time in the office on the phone or trawling the internet. So, academia suits me better because, although it may not be as "glamorous" as journalism, I like working from home and keeping my own hours. Except when I'm teaching or have a meeting, I am in my study at home, where there is better light, far better equipment and quieter working conditions than in my office (read small, windowless cupboard) at university.

An academic career is one of the few that allows you to indulge in researching what you are passionate about - well, if you are lucky enough to land an ongoing job or long-term contract. As one seasoned scholar said to me a couple of years ago: "The pay may not be sensational, but there are compensations."

And then there's the teaching. This takes up roughly half the year, plus preparation time, and again, the autonomy offered to teach in an area of one's own expertise is thrilling. However, putting my cynic's hat back on, that could be because no one cares, as long as the students don't sue ... stop it!

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