THE Scholarly Web - 6 February 2014

Weekly transmissions from the blogosphere

February 6, 2014

Do we recognise good teaching in our universities? This is the question posed by Robert Gordon University vice-chancellor Ferdinand von Prondzynski on his University Blog.

Remembering his first university teaching experiences some 35 years ago, as a PhD student at the University of Cambridge earning “a little extra income”, he recalls feeling inexperienced and nervous.

“Two years later I became a lecturer in the School of Business Studies of Trinity College Dublin, and by that time I had become more confident and was very enthusiastic; and there followed a 20-year career teaching some 4,000 students, many of whom I  will meet occasionally, some now in very senior positions,” he writes.

His teaching career continued until 2000, when he became president of Dublin City University. “I had been a Professor for ten years. It is a rank I was able to get almost entirely on the strength of my research. If teaching played a role in it, I was and am unaware of it.”

This focus on research is how the academic promotion system works “in almost all universities”, Professor von Prondzynski claims. “That is not always a bad thing, because academic life is about scholarship and research output demonstrates scholarly achievement.”

However the “traditional key core mission” of a university is to teach, he continues, and “if we want people to perform this vital task well we need to show recognition of excellence in this field – and on the whole we don’t”.

“One of the aims I have had for some time is to find a framework for rewarding excellent teaching and allowing it to be a significant part of staff career development; and to be able to apply such a framework without weakening the search for scholarly excellence in research,” he concludes.

“We must do this not least because we cannot really persuade students that they matter unless we can show them that what we do for them counts when we take important decisions on staffing.”

The blog attracted a string of comments, including this from a reader named simply “V.H”: “I would have said it was remarkably simple to solve that problem. Make training in teaching a requirement,” V.H says, admitting to approaching the issue with tongue firmly in cheek.

“A good start on this would be a 40 hour training for tutors who’re doing as you did at Cambridge,” the reader adds. “People might (will) grouse and cavil. But in truth, few could do so without seeming petty and frankly idiotic since it would be an aid to them in doing their work.”

Dr Greg Foley, lecturer in the biotechnology department at Dublin City University and author of the educationandstuff blog, also comments.

“One of the problems is that there is no consensus as to what constitutes a good ‘teacher’,” he reasons. “Good teaching is hard to pin down and it is not easy to devise simple metrics like you can in research…but we do have to try to devise something because the system of promotion which is still largely based on research is both unfair and actually quite damaging.”

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