Lecturers' lack of team spirit criticised

January 10, 1997

An American higher education expert has called for greater recognition of the collective aspects of academic work.

Elaine El-Khawas, professor of higher education at the University of California Los Angeles and a senior research scholar with the American Council on Education, estimates that between one-third and one-half of academics' research, teaching and "service" actions involved some form of collective activity.

Speaking at the recent Society for Research in Higher Education conference in Cardiff, she said the focus on individual efforts had distorted the public image of their work and over-emphasised it at the expense of collective work.

She called for a "mental remapping" of academia to give staff a more realistic image of their work. A narrow view meant that critical tasks, such as redesigning courses and management, were undervalued.

Much research was already collaborative, particularly in the sciences, medicine, social work, education and engineering. Other aspects, such as organising conferences, producing journals and peer review or quality assessment exercises, were instances where "individual behaviour is counted but much of it occurs in a communal structure".

Despite attempts to encourage team teaching and the opportunities posed by interdisciplinary courses "academics will readily admit that there are both real and perceived obstacles to team teaching that inhibit their doing so".

Electronic teaching would force academics to think beyond the conventional, individual model of university teaching. Preparing multimedia teaching presentations was a team effort and collective activity would grow, particularly with funding restrictions.

But Professor El-Khawas also warned: "Many academics are ill-equipped to move into work patterns based on collaboration and supervision of others. It is overdue that our categories for describing academic activity begin to recognise both the individual and the collective contributions that academics make."

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