It's more than a stand-up routine

November 23, 2007

The notion that teaching is little more than the skill to perform in a lecture theatre ignores the essence of the academic role: personal tutoring, Bruce Macfarlane argues. A few years ago I asked a colleague at a research university how much teaching he did. "About six hours a week," he said. "Good," I replied, "that must allow a reasonable amount of time for research."

My colleague looked aghast at this suggestion. "Far from it," he said. "I have virtually no time for research." Further discussion revealed that what he actually meant was that he gave six hour-long lectures each week. In addition to this, he gave individual tutorials, supervised doctoral students and had started mediating online discussions. He also developed teaching materials, assessed, gave students feedback and had some administrative responsibilities.

This story reveals how little understanding there is about what "teaching" actually means in higher education. Too often, it is taken to mean lecturing. And lecturing can be taken to mean delivering a stand-up performance in front of a big group of students. Here, the assumption is that the teacher should try to be a good actor. We need the right clothes, good voice projection, stage "presence" and an assortment of decent jokes to keep the students entertained.

But, unlike actors, lecturers stay in character when they leave the stage. They maintain and build relationships with students. A good teacher is a person whose students can trust him or her to take an interest in their academic progress and deal with them fairly.

However, the opportunities for building authentic teaching relationships are being eroded. We are experiencing a narrowing of the teaching role, and this is linked to the unpacking of the academic job into its constituent parts: teachers, researchers, tutors, advisers and so on. This approach to making teaching more "efficient" has legitimised the loss of contact time between academic staff and students.

Evidence of the power of the dramaturgical metaphor is all around us. Despite growing challenges by those who advocate active learning methods, the lecture is still the common currency of teaching across most subjects in universities. This method has thrived in the age of mass higher education as a pragmatic means of teaching large student groups.

The rhetoric of "student-centred" learning belies the fact that the way we judge "good" or "excellent" teaching is still dominated by the idea of teaching as a performance. Using actors to coach lecturers on their use of body language or voice projection only serves to underline the power of the metaphor. We continue to think of teaching as putting on a "performance" in a lecture "theatre".

In judging good teaching, we rely a lot on student evaluation questionnaires and teaching observations. Teaching observation forms stress qualities such as "voice projection", being "enthusiastic" and having "an effective physical presence".

Student evaluation questionnaires also focus on the performance element of teaching and normally assume that students are evaluating a formal teaching context. They often ask questions that privilege the assessment of presentational skills over "softer" skills associated with building relationships with students. Questions on "learning support" tend to refer to specialised units such as library and information services or student skills rather than to the lecturer.

Workload models set expectations about "teaching" hours that reinforce the narrow definition of teaching. They rarely extend to less-visible non- classroom-based activities such as online or personal tutoring. These activities are highly valued by students but in an increasingly performative world they are seen as too messy to quantify by all but a few enlightened institutions.

As a result, broadcasting from behind a lectern gets recognised as teaching while spending a similar amount of time assessing and giving feedback is ignored. It is hardly surprising that research consistently points to student dissatisfaction with assessment and feedback practices when such activities are not rewarded or esteemed. Definitions of teaching are becoming restricted further with academic work being "unbundled" into specialist jobs such as "researcher", "teacher", "instructional designer", "specialist tutor" and "skills adviser". It is reflected in university appointment and promotion policies that differentiate a variety of academic career tracks.

The lecturer is fast becoming a referral agent for a host of in-house specialists such as counsellors, disability advisers and numeracy and literacy specialists. This ignores the evidence from retention surveys that indicates that the tutor is a key figure in student integration on campus. For students, the referral culture can make the modern university feel like an increasingly anonymous and impersonal place.

The drive for efficiency is connected with larger student groups, less contact time for individual learners and less available or approachable tutors. Symbolic of this change is the replacement of the lecturer's office with open-plan working arrangements that make it practically more difficult to find appropriate private space for personal tutoring. There is also evidence that institutional pressures on academic staff to be more active in research encourages a culture that "distances" the tutor from the student.

The irony of assigning less significance to "back-stage" than "front- stage" elements of teaching is that attempts to identify the meaning of "excellence" in teaching consistently points to the importance of a lecturer's interpersonal qualities. But these interactions need to find space to develop beyond the confines of formal teaching environments. Authentic teaching relationships entail reciprocity, trust and caring about what happens to students. This can be achieved only if we re-examine what it means to be a teacher and value what goes on "off stage" as well as "on".

Bruce Macfarlane is head of educational development and professor of education at Thames Valley University. This article is based on "Beyond performance in teaching excellence" in Skelton, A. (ed.) (2007) International Perspectives on Teaching Excellence in Higher Education , published by Routledge, £80.

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