Feeding a fine hunger

Whatever their social and cultural backgrounds, students will flourish if we take them seriously and impart a love of our subject, says Frank Furedi

October 30, 2008

After three decades of working with undergraduates, I remain convinced that teaching is best learnt on the job. The more teaching I do, the more it becomes evident that, in the university, good teaching is not a separate and distinct activity from the rest of academic work.

Although the "teaching" experts can provide us with a few interesting tricks, their training often misses the point: that academic teaching cannot be recycled as a series of distinct skills and competencies. Yes, we all have to learn how to teach - but not everything that has to be learnt can be taught. The "trick" is how to learn from the experience of teaching.

The most important lesson I have learnt is that to be successful as a teacher, you have to take students seriously - and I do mean really seriously. Undergraduates are young adults who possess the potential for self-direction and autonomous inquiry.

Yet often we are told that students today are little more than biologically mature pupils who require three things - support, support and more support. According to contemporary pedagogic wisdom, we live in a fluid world where teaching must adapt to new, changing realities.

It is frequently suggested that the body of undergraduates has become more diverse and no longer comes from a small pool of the traditional elite-educated middle class. The implication of this argument is that an "inclusive" pedagogic approach must cater for different needs, and in particular focus on the problems of so-called non-traditional students. It appears that they have individual deficits that require not only "support" but also new and different forms of assessment. "Student-centred teaching" is the order of the day.

Over the years, I have drawn the conclusion that an obsession with student-centred teaching has two damaging consequences.

It distracts academics from pursuing the intellectual logic of their discipline with their undergraduates, and it can also lead to the cultivation of a regime of low expectation in the student body. Whatever their social and cultural backgrounds, students who want to learn will flourish if we take them seriously.

I had my first experience with "non-traditional" students back in 1976-77, when I ran an evening Workers' Educational Authority course on "contemporary international relations" in the Kentish working-class town of Deal.

Most of my students were working miners or former miners who worked at the now long-closed Betteshanger Colliery. They may have been "non-traditional", but they were thirsty for ideas and continually put pressure on me to account for arguments. I knew that they were getting on top of the material because, by the end of the course, I too had learnt much about my own subject.

I had a similar experience a few years later when I gave a series of seminars to students at the University of Zambia in Lusaka. Some of my students were very non-traditional. They had parents who had barely finished their primary education.

What dominates my memory of these students was their intense hunger for ideas. Once when I protested that I had to finish a seminar discussion and resume my research, one of them pointed out to me that they "expected me to teach for the love of it for they loved learning". It was evident to me that despite their poverty, what they craved was intellectual stimulation and not support.

So what have I learnt? Regardless of who is in the lecture hall, academic teaching always contains a tension between motivating undergraduates to study and getting across a body of complex ideas. The content of what is taught is dictated by the academic subject matter.

But the presentation of a subject should be influenced by the reaction and signals transmitted by students. In these days of officially formalised feedback, it is easy to overlook the fact that the most useful feedback is the spontaneous reaction and body language of students in a lecture hall or seminar room. Those semi-verbal responses constitute an important dimension of a dialogue that we need to learn from.

One of the most difficult lessons I had to learn as a teacher was that the problem with lectures that did not work was not reducible to style or presentation. Over the years, I discovered that lack of clarity in presentation was in part attributable to a lack of clarity about the subject matter.

Teaching in higher education requires that we continually develop our understanding of our subject. As a young lecturer, I remember feeling constant frustration about my inability to get my students to grasp the meaning of simple concepts such as "society" and "the social".

I still feel a twinge of embarrassment when I recall my early futile attempts to go beyond very formal expositions about the difference between nature and nurture. It was only after a series of disappointing episodes of miscommunication that I decided to spend some time reading about this subject to see if I could teach it more effectively.

It was while reading the introduction to Karl Marx's Grundrisse one evening that the proverbial light bulb was switched on. The passage that did it was about the socially mediated meaning of eating: "Hunger is hunger, but the hunger gratified by cooked meat eaten with a knife and fork is a different hunger from that which bolts down raw meat with the aid of hand, nail and tooth."

A week later I tried it out in one of my seminars. "Even an apparently biological act like eating is socially mediated," I explained, before elaborating on Marx's example. Did it work? Almost immediately one of my Nigerian students pointed out that "you Europeans worry about overeating while we in Africa are concerned about not having enough food in our belly".

A few minutes later another student raised the question of eating disorders. "It is unlikely that people in the Stone Age knew very much about anorexia," she posited. By the end of the seminar, the students had begun to internalise the concept of "social" and I learnt how to teach this subject more effectively.

It was not the magic of the Grundrisse that achieved this revelation. I could have gained inspiration from numerous other texts. For me, what was significant about this episode was that I finally learnt to treat a problem of teaching as an issue that was inseparable from matters to do with my scholarship.

Frequently we extol the virtues of research-led teaching but often overlook the significance of teaching-led research. That is why it is not a platitude to conceive of academic teaching as an engagement or a relationship. Indeed, these relational aspects give this form of teaching its distinct academic character.

Most of the discussion on university teaching has as its focus the problem of motivating undergraduates. Many of the techniques proposed to deal with this problem are pedagogic gimmicks designed to keep students awake and active. Some higher education experts regard "old-fashioned" lectures and seminars as far too formal for the new digital generation.

One quality-assurance maven who advised me to experiment with "group work" reminded me of advocates of "circle time" in primary school. Such techniques are designed to keep children active, awake and included. The problem is that it encourages participation without focus.

And unfortunately such unfocused activity does not encourage students' aspiration for autonomous inquiry. Indeed, all too often group work distracts undergraduates from developing their sense of self-direction.

Motivational techniques and pedagogic tricks are not able to deal with what is probably the most important challenge facing lecturers in the social sciences, which is the teaching of abstract concepts and theory.

Even the most lively mind can get discouraged when forced to tackle a text written by Max Weber or Emile Durkheim. "There is no royal road to science and only those who do not dread the fatiguing climb of its steep paths have a chance of gaining its luminous summits," wrote Marx.

I have often had to bite my lip to stop myself from quoting this advice to my students. After my first year of teaching, I learnt that exhortation does not work. Some of my colleagues suggested that I try using humour. Others advised that I try bringing my lectures down to earth and do my best to ensure that the material that I use is seen as relevant by students.

Humour, lively anecdotes and relevant information are useful tools for spicing up a lecture and gaining the attention of students. But they don't necessarily motivate students to study.

Indeed, sometimes they incite students to underestimate the challenge they face when confronted with concepts that are not directly relevant to their lives. And since most abstract concepts do not derive from direct individual experience, there are limits to the promotion of relevance.

Motivating students needs to be more than a psychological exercise - it requires academics to get their undergraduates to grasp the point of their discipline. The question is, how? The lecturers I know who have succeeded in achieving this are those who continually demonstrate that they take their subject seriously.

The passion, commitment and enthusiasm transmitted by a lecturer are traits that are peculiarly effective for communicating the idea that theirs is a really important subject. Nothing can motivate students more than the belief that they are participating in a very important discussion or an important intellectual event.

Of course it is not possible to feel enthusiasm for every lecture, nor can academics be expected to feel passionate 24 hours a day. But such sentiments can be renewable resources through the pursuit of our work. The pursuit of knowledge changes the way we teach - I could never again experience the intense sense of importance that I experienced as a new lecturer.

When every new lecture is perceived as an adventure, it is difficult not to motivate those around you. The sheer energy of some new lecturers is sufficient to create a real buzz in the lecture hall. But after a while that energy needs to be renewed through the development of new intellectual interests and a confrontation with new challenges if we are to continue to inspire our students.

But it is a two-way process because often it is our students who stimulate us to move in new directions. The formal provision of staff development does little to enhance the quality of teaching. What we need are not courses in communication skills but time to develop the ideas that are worth communicating to our classes.

At its best, good university teaching does something that impacts on the lives of our students and occasionally even changes them. So whenever you feel frustrated with all the pointless paperwork demanded of you, remember that academic teaching is a privileged vocation. You get to influence cohorts of lively students, and through them you gain important insights into your own subject. Sometimes it even seems unfair, because you get more out of the deal than the students. Teaching is learning both about your subject and yourself.

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