Turning a blind eye

August 16, 2002

Demoralised academics are losing the will to make their students really work for their qualifications, argues Carol Jones.

On July 15, I saw some of my philosophy students for the first time ever - at their graduation ceremony. They had registered for and passed the modules I taught, but now I was actually able to meet them.

So concluded a year's teaching during which a cohort of ghost students passed through the department, gaining credits for modules they had not attended.

Students taking our modules can (and often do) skip lectures and seminars, fail to complete set coursework and still meet the demands of some modules merely by spending a few hours in the library (or a few minutes on the internet) to produce, after the module, a 2,000-word essay - the only course requirement.

They offer various explanations for their poor participation. Some, of course, had to take jobs to support themselves. Others chose to absent themselves from courses for other reasons. They describe a culture of non-participation, fostered by departmental policies of demanding little or nothing from them. Because neither lectures and seminars nor coursework are compulsory, students quickly realise that little is required of them to gain credits. Even those who would otherwise be inclined to participate are discouraged in this climate: because other students don't attend seminars, they are either reluctant to attend themselves or find themselves a member of a very small group. As seminar attendance decreases, students find themselves unpractised in the crucial business of discussing the subjects they are studying.

Recently, this issue was raised at a meeting with staff who, unlike me, are not on part-time, "casual" contracts and therefore have some say in the running of the department. The reaction from many of the full-time members of staff was defensive. This is a selection of (paraphrased) responses to the concerns raised:

  • The students have jobs, so we cannot expect them to prepare for, attend or participate in classes
  • The students are not expected to attend seminars in other departments, so we cannot oblige
    them to prepare for, attend or participate in ours
  • We should not force students to do anything
  • We cannot insist they prepare for, attend and participate in certain classes because it would make our lives as tutors impossible. Some modules have so many students we would not manage to squeeze them into the rooms allocated to us. Therefore, we can hardly demand it of them for other classes, even those with adequate space
  • At least we do better than English, which does not even provide seminars.

These responses came from good teachers who care about what they do - strongly committed and conscientious educators. How can this be possible? This surely represents a failure not of conscience but of recognition. It seems that academics are unable to see the general ills of higher education reflected in their own particular cases and they do not recognise their own responsibility and power to make a difference. Perhaps this is an inevitable consequence of demoralisation: underfunding and increasing student numbers have brought departments to their knees and academics to despair.

Whatever the cause, instead of recognising and resisting education's terrible swerve towards atomisation and consumerisation, those working within it have ceded even the ambition of taking charge and no longer see the possibility of doing so. By taking the path of least resistance for themselves and offering the life of least challenge to their students, academics have fallen into practices and become complicit with an ideology few would freely embrace.

Since 1997, when I last taught these particular modules, the change in students' expectations and commitment has been both dramatic and depressing. That colleagues are not attempting to reverse or even recognise these changes is cause for further dismay. Other once-committed colleagues have already abandoned the academy. I have now received my doctorate and instead of seeking a permanent academic post, I too am looking outside higher education for work that I feel will have the same value and make the same contribution that my university teaching once did.

Carol Jones is a lecturer in philosophy at Cardiff University.

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