Students see teaching's value, Myshele Goldberg argues: what a shame that managers don't

Students appreciate the value of teaching, says Myshele Goldberg: it’s a shame managers have different ideas

July 18, 2013

A recent study reported in these pages highlights how few staff receive recognition for their contributions to teaching.

The report, commissioned by the Higher Education Academy and undertaken by the Staff and Educational Development Association, found that more than two-thirds of university staff have never been rewarded by their institutions for their commitment to teaching and learning or student support (“Apple for teacher, but few promotions or pay rises”, News, 4 July).

It is a familiar message and one that was brought home to me earlier this summer when I attended the annual University of Strathclyde Teaching Excellence Awards. The awards are run by the university’s Students’ Association, whose members nominate teaching staff who have had a positive influence on their studies.

This was the second year in which my name had been put forward. While it was a welcome time for celebration, to me the ceremony was bittersweet because it also served to highlight the stark contrast between the priorities of students and those of university managers.

In video after video, students praised teachers who put extra effort into their lectures, who are available to talk through problems, who give in- depth feedback and reply to emails all hours of the day or night.

And yet, according to my school’s “workload model”, the hours teaching staff are allocated for lecture preparation and assignment feedback are strictly limited. Engagement with students - whether through email or in person - does not “count” as part of our jobs at all.

As well-paid professionals, academics expect a certain amount of overtime, especially during busy periods. But I have been told to “balance my workload” and spend less time supporting students - despite being on a teaching contract. When I am told that an academic career will require me to “streamline” my engagement with students, I despair for the profession at large.

Again and again at the awards, students praised lecturers who saw them as human beings rather than as numbers on a spreadsheet. But to management, it seems that is exactly what they are.

The day after the awards, I discovered that our administrators were being harassed for next year’s student numbers before this year’s examinations had even finished. If student numbers drop below a certain threshold, they will lose an additional member of the team.

Again and again at the awards, students praised lecturers who saw them as human beings rather than as numbers on a spreadsheet. But to management, it seems that is exactly what they are

By coincidence, the awards ceremony took place the day after my colleagues and I received redundancy letters. I work in one of the four subject areas at Strathclyde scheduled for closure in 2015: sociology, geography, community education and music. The letters finally brought an end to years of broken promises and anxious speculation over who would be selected to finish our courses.

By chance, I am one of the lucky ones: my contract has now been renewed for two years. However, the selection process is based on a flawed numerical model and inaccurate data. As one colleague put it: “If this were a second-year data-gathering project, I’d give it a fail.” But reducing people to numbers gives the process the veneer of fairness and rationality.

It is testament to their dedication against all the odds that in the social sciences areas scheduled for closure, nearly half of the active teaching staff were nominated for awards.

At the end of the ceremony, a senior manager claimed that the awards demonstrated the importance of teaching at Strathclyde. But to me what they really demonstrate is that despite all the pressures - and despite being seen as numbers in spreadsheets and being told to treat those we educate in that way - university teachers are still determined to engage with students as human beings.

While it is wonderful that the students appreciate our work, I wish that it did not end there.

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