From where I sit - Teaching is half the battle

October 22, 2009

A friend of mine who decided to go back to university to do a postgraduate teaching degree in her mid-forties recently withdrew from the course after barely a semester. She didn't think the course's teaching and administration were good enough and felt the university had failed to deliver what it had promised.

It got me thinking about the attitude of universities towards their teaching components and the dire straits many are in because of understaffing, poor or outdated equipment, dilapidated buildings and shoddy maintenance.

I've said before that I believe universities should do only two things: teach and conduct research. I also believe these elements are equally important.

However, teaching has become the poor relation, the necessary evil an academic has to go through for half the year in order to get research time.

Now, I didn't do a doctorate so I could teach. I slaved away at my thesis for five years because as well as fiction, I wanted to write non-fiction books with some authority. So far, my plan has worked. Since graduating in 2007, I have had one non-fiction book published and another is under way.

But one rarely makes a living writing books, and I realised that an academic career would allow me to pay the bills and get some time to research and write non-fiction. So I'm working my way towards landing a permanent academic post.

In the meantime, I'm doing the sessional and short-term contract circuit, like all the other hopefuls. It allows me, on the outside looking in, to observe how the other half works.

To my surprise, I have found the teaching side of my job immensely rewarding, although it becomes a seven-day-a-week responsibility during the semester.

Don't get me wrong - most academics I know are deeply committed to their work, including teaching, but most realise that teaching won't further their careers. Only research and the grants it attracts seem to matter in terms of obtaining permanent positions and promotions.

Often it's a person with a formidable body of research (and lucrative grants to match) yet little teaching experience who gets a job - even one that requires a lot of teaching to large undergraduate groups.

I have heard many students from universities all over Australia complain of lecturers and tutors who go off on tangents, who are ill-prepared, disorganised at tutorials and lacking in basic teaching skills, even though they might have written many scholarly books and are experts in their fields. How do I know this? Because I make a point of asking students everywhere I go about their universities. I'm genuinely interested.

I'd make a call for balance. Let's look at scholars' research capabilities, sure, but let's also determine whether they are effective and dedicated teachers - after all, that is at least half the job. It is crucial to our country's future to have a generation of well-educated young people moving up the ranks and, eventually, taking over.

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