Blind sides

Academics aren't perfect. They may be reluctant to scrutinise their teaching practices, but despite their marginalised status across much of the world, they are dedicated and committed. Tara Brabazon suggests that courses in education can do much to raise individual technique, while overleaf Philip G. Altbach argues that institutions should repay their staff by elevating their status

April 30, 2009

Academics are Nimbys. University recruitment and widening-participation agendas rely on undergraduate and postgraduate students' commitment to education. But when probing academics' dedication to professional development, it seems that there are always important emails to send and meetings to attend. However, if we want to preach about lifelong learning, we must put up or shut up. It is hard to ask others to value education if the last time we took a course, the Spice Girls were still girls and former US President Bill Clinton was not having sexual relations with "that woman".

Although I am a professor of media studies, the discipline that suffers happy slapping from Daily Mail journalists and fellow academics in equal measure, I am an old-fashioned girl when it comes to scholarly standards. I believe that all academics should teach and research. Each function informs the other. In keeping with this maxim, academics should possess a teaching degree and a doctorate.

For most academics, an affirmation of the importance of attaining a doctorate early in a research career as the platform upon which to build further scholarship is not a radical statement, but there appears to be much wider resistance to the importance of teaching qualifications. Most universities expect, encourage and fund some form of certificate in teaching, even if it has to be attained after appointment. However, belief in the necessity and importance of holding an undergraduate or postgraduate education degree rarely gains support among academics.

Part of this resistance is tethered to memories of the past rather than understanding the present. Many of us were taught by great scholars who never went near a school of education. Most of their students were middle class, young and without family responsibilities. We all romanticise our past teachers. They had smaller class sizes, did not have to match "learning outcomes" to "assessment", or continually moderate their expertise against subject benchmarks.

It took the Liberal Democrats, in their 2007 Further and Higher Education Consultation Paper, to note the obvious: "Very few university staff have any kind of teaching qualification, and (they) seek to maximise the amount of time they spend on research, knowing that it is through success in this that they will advance their careers." The impact on teaching standards of the lack of education degrees was left unstated.

There are commentators in the UK who problematise any link or relationship between teaching quality and teaching qualifications. In a recent letter to Times Higher Education, Richard Austen-Baker, lecturer in law at Lancaster University, summoned a "longitudinal ethnographic study of teaching quality" based on his own primary, secondary and tertiary education. He found poor teachers in schools. Those in universities were "at least competent, most pretty good, and some gifted and inspirational". In a piquant inversion of logic, he inferred that a lack of qualifications leads to good teaching.

It is important to discuss such arguments. Austen-Baker is correct: a teaching qualification does not guarantee a high-quality educational experience for students, but a lack of such a degree does not shape a souped-up Socrates. Such debates also perpetuate a wider concern. University departments or schools of education are rarely granted credibility. Too often on the morning news, a yummy mummy or celebrity nanny offers a soundbite about homework, examination standards or literacy levels, but the views of professors of education are rarely sought.

In this light, I offer a counter-view: qualifications in our disciplines provide the "what" of knowledge, but education degrees offer the "how", configuring methods to align the form, content and context of learning.

Throughout my academic career, I have never marginalised or ridiculed teaching. When I was 22 and in the midst of a research masters in history, I was selected as a "teaching apprentice" at the University of Western Australia. It offered me the opportunity to complete an "Introduction to Teaching" course, to conduct tutorials and to participate in a weekly meeting with the module co-ordinator, who offered peer support. Building on this apprenticeship and after completing my doctorate, I started a bachelor of education. It was no hardship. Instructed by fine scholars at Central Queensland University, I found the programme varied and provocative. Every course and assignment inspired application, improvement and transformation.

Sessions covered teaching, learning and planning; language, education and professional understanding; technologies for learning and teaching; communication, culture and difference; gender as a social justice issue; supervision as professional practice; development and disability; and racial formation and education.

These sessions built connections between media studies research and education. They have been applied in my professional life to ensure that students from diverse backgrounds are supported through university.

Impressed by the degree, I continued with a masters, building interdisciplinary and transhistorical links between theories of technology, media, social justice and learning. Courses in cross-cultural management and the international context of teaching extended into a thesis that applied teaching-led research methods and the positioning of technological change into wider histories of learning.

While noting Austen-Baker's questioning of the causal link between teaching qualifications and quality, there is an array of casual connections that can be formed.

Reading, writing and thinking about international education and considering how new models and strategies for literacy can be used in daily practice have not inevitably and intrinsically improved my teaching. Instead, this professional development has provided tools, research opportunities and the inspiration to enact change.

Austen-Baker and others ask what teaching qualifications provide to academics. From the perspective of someone who has undertaken these degrees, there are five clear and trackable benefits:

First, problem-solving facilities are available to deploy in classroom situations at moments of crisis or uncertainty. When something does not work, there are options and mechanisms to fix or manage the difficulty, ranging from moving the furniture to changing the platform for delivery. There are benefits in reading case studies, tracking longitudinal studies and monitoring examples from teaching-led researchers - and they provide options far beyond a desperate plea for advice from a colleague over coffee.

For example, my current cohort of masters students is one of the most exciting groups I have ever taught. They unsettle my assumptions about the form of a conventional masters seminar. In the room, there are four students who speak English as a first language and ten who do not. They are articulate, witty, intelligent and interesting, but a general free-for-all conversation about the reading would not enable them to contribute at the level they demand of themselves. My role is to find ways to harness their experiences of research, using print-based triggers and sonic media as often as possible to give the students a few more seconds to understand key ideas and terms.

This is not dumbing down - it is recognising that different students require specific methods to attain academic standards. Multiliteracy theories have been activated. Complacency with masters teaching - being content to conduct a generalised discussion about the week's reading, for example - is not an option if we are to align our socially and professionally diverse classrooms with learning goals and international standards.

Second, education degrees improve consistency in both the construction and delivery of learning materials. I presented my first lecture when I was 21. By 25, I was stretched to three first-year lectures a week, delivered to 300 students. I survived this first post with luck and persistence. Although the students were taught, I am not sure if they were learning. But education courses stress the role of both organisation and planning in creating a successful classroom.

Too much attention is placed on the delivery of materials in a lecture theatre, rather than what happens before we walk into the auditorium. For example, almost every teacher I have observed in the past five years has read from PowerPoint slides. The lecturer leading my teaching, learning and planning sessions would have been horrified. Because of this lack of preparation, sessions are mistimed through extemporising from headings. Attendance suffers because students can - literally - download the lecture.

The hours deployed writing lectures, creating the media used in them and memorising the script are rarely measured. I once spent six weeks of daily reading and writing for one lecture on Michel Foucault's theory of "the subject" delivered in a large first-year survey course. Before starting this preparation, I had enough information in my head and on my hard drive to write a 50-minute session, but as my education lecturer had shown me, the students deserved a properly planned session on such an intricate topic.

Was this six weeks' preparation an efficient and productive use of time? According to some managerial models of education, I failed the time-and-motion study. The lecture was delivered once and never repeated in any form. But I know - and those students know - that a teacher demonstrated respect for them and their time.

Third, I am inspired by the way education academics construct and consider assessments. The diversity of assignments and the connection with practice are useful in understanding how to align the production and analysis of knowledge. In the eight courses I now co-ordinate, students complete only one essay. The rest of the assignments deploy sonic media, digital storytelling, photography, film or workbooks. First-year students write book proposals. Masters students construct curriculums. By seeing what is possible when experts in assessment formulate assignments, we learn to stretch our portfolio of examination tools.

Fourth, these qualifications enable the management of diversity in the classroom. My first two posts - the teaching apprenticeship and my first lectureship in New Zealand - were in traditional universities. The students were middle class and mobile. As I moved into universities with increasing numbers of older and working-class scholars, I needed new methods. Increased attention was placed on motivation and aspiration. The key was and is to match the diversity of students with the diversity of methods to enable learning.

Finally, my education degrees allow me to welcome surprises and teach the unexpected. A risk I recently undertook was teaching slow food and accelerated modernity to first years. I wanted to find a way to explore theories of speed and popular culture, and modes of resistance to different models of modernity. But food can be a bit dull, and slow foodies are not the sort of people with whom I would like to go shopping. I was to be surprised. The seminars - accompanied by chocolate, crisps and cake brought to class by the students - were raucous, strange and disturbing. They not only explored theories of modernity, speed and slowness, but started to understand how food exists both inside and outside popular culture. I thought the class would be dull, pedestrian and earnest. The students made it extraordinary.

These five gifts came from academics teaching education degrees. Their knowledge requires more respect. The assumption that disciplinary knowledge is enough to ensure excellence in our classrooms may be outdated. We cannot assume that how we were taught is how we should teach. When we deny the value of education degrees, we not only undermine an intellectual hub of our universities, we also block the realisation that experience is not always synonymous with expertise. If we continue as Nimbys - arguing that others should participate in lifelong learning while we disconnect from it - then we perpetuate anti-intellectualism and hypocrisy, the antithesis of scholarship.

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