Tara Brabazon: When ‘excellence’ is not enough

Our desire, individually and collectively, to respect students, colleagues and universities is the best way to drive up teaching quality, says Tara Brabazon

May 20, 2009

There are certain words and phrases that are so overused that they have been drained of meaning. “Strategy” is one of them. “Vision” is another. So is “teaching excellence”.

Despite the black-hole thinking that results from the use of such words and phrases, there has never been a more important time to talk about teaching. It is important to ensure that the aspirations expressed by our students are matched by our ability to help them reach their goals. The credit crunch, a tentative employment outlook, the shredded banking industry, marooned mortgages and a negative-equity housing market promise a part-time, casualised and un(der)employed future for many. When students join us for three years, they must have not only the time of their lives, but also the opportunity to read deeply, think widely and write considerately. They have been given a chance to transcend themselves and their time. It is our task to help them gain every skill, knowledge, perspective and paradigm that can assist them to manage and thrive in a new economy that is still confronting so many of the old social problems.

The project of developing and promoting teaching quality is important. “Excellence” is a loaded word and a relative judgment that is given the status of an absolute. But the aspiration – the desire – to be the best teacher we can be should be supported and nurtured. Obviously there are teaching excellence “competitions” where universities select their best staff to go forward for national awards and fellowships. Regardless of such policies and procedures, there remain many ways to assess teaching, not for punitive ends or as obstacles to promotion and pay increases, but to activate productive staff development and an overall improvement in our universities.

There are still academics –we all know a couple – who wrote a lecture when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister and continue to dig out these browning notes every year. PowerPoint also encourages a fast preparation of sessions that weds busy staff to a particular approach, even if the occasional slide is added to “the show”.

Finding a way – a mechanism – to encourage staff to believe in teaching and learning and the importance of improvement over a career is difficult. The professional rewards, and we must not ignore this truth, come via research. The personal thrill of finishing a landmark article, seeing the cover of a new book and marvelling at how our international colleagues deploy and reconfigure our scholarship is incredibly rewarding. The achievements and passions of teaching are smaller and less definitive. They are more about self-fulfilment than self-aggrandisement. Helping staff to believe in teaching and to aim for the ambiguous words that accompany it, such as “quality” and “excellence”, is a tough project. Perhaps the basis of such a trajectory is the knowledge that we have helped students on the passage through their lives. Institutional awards are another way to create motivation for change and improvement. It is easy to offer platitudes about teaching and learning in strategic plans. It is much harder to establish a verifiable, transparent procedure to demonstrate how a commitment to teaching is embedded in wider institutional processes.

For me, there are three ways to assess and evaluate “standards” (another one of those words) in teaching. The difficulty is that strategies for professional development in our universities are often instruments to minimise, discredit or undermine fellow academics. The question is how we create a process that enables all staff – at different stages of their career – to select from a range of strategies to enable change, growth and thought.

The first strategy is the construction of a teaching portfolio. Part journal, part scrapbook, part theoretical reflection, it is a powerful tool for new teachers. Upon my arrival in Wellington, Aotearoa/New Zealand for an academic appointment, I was delivering three lectures a week to 300 students in an enormous first-year survey course, encompassing European history from 1832 to 1992. Even though I was mentored by the extraordinary David MacKay, an academic who is still responsible for much of my thinking about teaching and research, no matter what support one has, a first full-time academic post is always frightening.

Luckily, I had attained just enough professional development to know about the diverse styles of teaching portfolio that were available to help. This was the era of the “reflective teacher”. While a bit hippyish for my tastes, this approach can be useful. Put simply, at the end of each teaching session, I would write about it. The review of “what happened” invariably gave way to “how” and “why” it happened. I improved rapidly and did not repeat the same mistakes.

I still maintain a teaching portfolio. While the “reflection” elements have been reduced in favour of storing and cataloguing teaching artefacts, objects and ideas, the earlier mode of reflection resurfaces when there is a problem to solve. Teaching portfolios operate particularly well when gathering data and working through issues with postgraduate supervision. I have also found them incredibly useful when considering expansive issues such as disability and/in education. Recently I assessed my courses for their capacity to operate for students facing challenges with physical mobility or text-based difficulties. For such issues that are not yet at a stage for external evaluation and require a gradual improvement in professional practice, the teaching portfolio is flexible and functional.

The second mechanism to enact improvement in teaching and learning is through peer review. This form of “assessment” is declining in its use, but not its usefulness. Perhaps it is now seen as a way of assessing fellow workers, rather than assisting colleagues. In the current procedures for academic promotion, teaching quality and excellence is – implicitly and often unconsciously – viewed as less relevant and important than administrative and research roles.

Even five years ago, when I was a member of a university promotion committee, peer reviews were important documents that demonstrated a willingness to undertake professional development while providing an independent and expert commentary on teaching. As evidence, they were helpful. As a document, they gave a context to teaching experiences.

The peer review is effective because constructing a learning event or moment is stressful and difficult. When we are “in” a classroom, laboratory or seminar room, all our senses are mobilised to monitor how our students are engaging with ideas, research and each other. It is difficult to reflect on a teaching and learning experience when in the middle of it.

The best peer reviews – and peer reviewers – understand the arc of curriculum and the positioning of a specific session within it. They offer detailed, personal and tailored commentary. It is not an evaluation of “a performance” but a way of creating a narrative, structure and strategy at particular stages of our professional lives. They should be written as formal documents and placed in a teaching portfolio. When this process is functioning effectively, peer reviews are conducted at regular intervals. For personal development as much as promotion, they should offer a considered and careful reflection on our intellectual decisions as teachers.

There are many reasons why peer reviews have declined in their use. One is simply senior academics’ lack of time. Frequently, questions of “resources” and “management” are given a greater priority than “expertise” and “experience”. I recently discovered a teaching “excellence” process where a head of school would sign off on an application even though the head had not viewed a curriculum or seen the teacher operate in a classroom. A peer-review system is much more effective. First, it provides a selection panel with evidence about teaching. Second, it offers the staff member a trajectory of growth and improvement while acknowledging his or her current moment of achievement. It also generates a paper trail for future promotions and appointments.

The final mechanism to improve teaching is the most resource and staff intensive and does present the problem of punitive consequences. Student reviews, when conducted by an independent and centralised agency in a university, create institution-wide benchmarking. Staff can see – precisely – where the results from their student reviews fall in relation to the school, faculty and university. Such reviews are powerful tools, particularly in the comments offered by students. They also reveal those staff who may be struggling with teaching and building relationships with students. We all know that student reviews are often popularity tests. However, if the correct questions and instrument of assessment are deployed, they can also reveal more systemic concerns.

Teaching is an isolating experience. Particularly given the irregularities of staff-development protocols, there are few mechanisms to view and understand how a staff member is teaching and creating learning experiences for his or her students. Such quantitative, institutional surveys can be benchmarked so that staff members with aberrant scores in their departments or schools can be given assistance. The concern is that such information would be used to block promotion or hurt an academic’s career, and these may be legitimate fears. Equally, however, such surveys may reveal an issue that was hidden from view behind the doors of a seminar room.

The key is to view institutional benchmarking in context. In my old promotions committee, year after year we saw a problem highlighted in institutionally benchmarked reviews from staff teaching tort in a law faculty. It was a compulsory unit. The students hated it. The staff loathed teaching it. Invariably, each year, academics who had taught this module would present a result well below the institutional norm. Rightly, they acknowledged that such a score was not about them, but the subject.

Then one year, an extraordinary young woman took on tort. She taught it on her own and “had a good go”. She worked hard to improve the curriculum and mechanism through which it was presented. When the time came to apply for promotion, she submitted her teaching portfolio, supplemented with strategies, ideas and exercises for each class, and a series of peer reviews from colleagues offering both encouragement and strategies for improvement. Finally, she presented the institutional benchmarking that showed that – for the first time in the history of teaching tort – she had reached the university’s average in the student review. Out of context, reaching an average may not seem an achievement, but on this occasion it was extraordinary. This committed young woman who “had a good go” was promoted.

The key stage in any discussion of teaching excellence and teaching quality is to care. It is necessary to care for the students, care for staff, care for the development of disciplinary knowledge and – perhaps most importantly – care for our universities. Whenever any of us undermines, ridicules, decentres or marginalises teaching, a component of our professional lives is diminished. We are here because so many extraordinary men and women cared to teach us. Their commitment gave us a career and new ways of thinking. Our responsibility must be no less than continuing their belief.

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