Postgraduates told: those who can, teach

July 7, 2006

Engaging with students is a matter of integrity, and it can improve promotion prospects, reports Olga Wojtas from a conference of postgraduates

Research is not the be all and end all in higher education so if you don't want to teach then don't bother becoming an academic, a postgraduate conference was told last week.

Trevor Salmon, Aberdeen University's director of learning and teaching, issued this stark warning to a national postgraduate conference hosted by the university.

"You would hardly know in British universities that there was something else apart from the research assessment exercise," he said. "Some people think universities are like a research institute. But if you don't like students, you shouldn't work in a university."

Professor Salmon told the annual conference run by Aberdeen's College of Arts and Social Sciences that good teaching was a matter of integrity and was expected by the outside world. "If we can't provide a good education, why would students come?"

And Professor Salmon predicted that students south of the border would start calculating value for money in terms of teaching once they were paying Pounds 3,000 top-up fees.

"In some English universities, in your final year you get 60 hours of teaching," he said. "That's £50 an hour. They're going to ask: 'Are we paying so you can go to San Diego for a conference?'"

He also warned that teaching was one of the criteria for promotion. "A lot of people think it's research, research, research. Maybe it is if you're a Nobel prizewinner, but if you're an ordinary mortal and you're poor at teaching, that hurts your promotion prospects."

Professor Salmon admitted that he got annoyed when academics said they could teach only what they had covered in their PhD.

"Can you be a lecturer in English and not be able to teach Shakespeare?" he asked. "There are things in any discipline that people have to know, and there is a curriculum to be taught. You ought to be able to teach first year without that being a problem, and maybe when you're teaching third and fourth year, you can do your PhD thing."

In many disciplines, particular areas have to be taught because of accreditation by professional bodies, and academics in small departments have to teach everything. Professor Salmon said the most important attribute for teaching was confidence. "If students see you're nervous, they get nervous. Do it with confidence and authority - students love that."

New academics were often unnecessarily afraid, Professor Salmon said. "I was scared when I first started lecturing, and then it came to me that I'd done a four-year MA and a one-year MLitt, and the first-years had done one week. We do know more than they know."

Professor Salmon said some academics believed that if someone was a good researcher, it followed that they could teach.

"I don't believe that," he said. "I don't believe that the opposite is necessarily the case, but I do know professors who would acknowledge that they're not very good teachers."

Professor Salmon said the merger of Aberdeen University and the Northern College of Education had forced university staff to ask questions about how they taught. It was crucial to move away from simply telling students things to actually engaging their interest in the topic.

The Higher Education Academy this week welcomed Professor Salmon's comments.

Mike Prosser, the HEA's director of research and evaluation, said: "Around the world the status of teaching in academic life is rising. Young lecturers are increasingly being challenged to see teaching and student learning in their disciplines as fields of inquiry in their own right - as intellectually challenging as their research."

olga.wojtas@thes.co.uk

SLIP INTO SOMETHING MORE PALATABLE

What's the secret of success in getting published by an academic journal?

Apparently, it's exactly the same as going out clubbing.

This is the view of Aberdeen University sociologist David Inglis, co-chair of the British Sociological Association's publications committee, and an editorial board member of Sociology, its flagship journal.

For journal editors and referees, think bouncers. For the paper's content and style, think dress code.

And for the most prestigious journals, think exclusive door policy.

"I strongly disagree with the view that you just write a paper you want to write about a certain aspect of your PhD," Dr Inglis told the conference.

"You have a much higher chance of getting accepted if you tailor the paper to fit a particular journal. There's absolutely no point in sending off a very empirical piece of work to a theory journal. If it likes big words and highfaluting jargon, you may have to put your paper into that jargon."

Dr Inglis said the most prestigious journals could reject 80 per cent of submissions and take more than two years to reply.

It might be preferable to submit to a journal with "a looser door policy and a shorter queue", he said.

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