Who's inspired by a handout?

August 24, 2007

Off-the-shelf teaching packages are no basis for engaging tuition, argues Susan Bassnett. There must be room for individuality

A friend awarded a prize for excellent teaching found that a reward far greater than the prize itself was to see the entire graduating class from her department give her a standing ovation when she stepped up to the platform. It was a great moment that showed how richly deserved the prize was.

Academia is trying hard to reward good teaching after long years of regarding it as a poor second to research activity. However, the system still enshrines research as the key to success for an academic.

Recognising good teaching puts students at the heart of things, for what matters most to them is the quality of the teaching they receive. Dr X may have grants totalling £20 million, but he is little use to students if he is never seen in a lecture room or cannot construct a coherent sentence.

The question that remains wide open is what makes a good university teacher. I can remember inspirational classes from my own undergraduate days when not only was my interest aroused but I was made to see things differently. There was a professor who played us Beethoven's Fourth Symphony during lectures on Shakespeare's sonnets; an Anglo-Saxon lecturer who made philology one of the most exciting subjects I ever studied; an art historian who showed me the connection between Renaissance painting and Mondrian; my dissertation supervisor, who conducted all tutorials in the pub but whose knowledge of James Joyce was boundless. All in their way were eccentrics, none conformed to expectations, all bent the syllabus in individualistic and highly exciting ways.

Today, we train lecturers in how to teach, and what I hear from new entrants to the profession is not particularly encouraging. We seem to be repeating many of the mistakes made in the training of schoolteachers, including over preparation, use of handouts and visual materials, and a host of other strategies that some might say were spoon-feeding rather than persuading young people to think for themselves.

What we used to have in universities was less than ideal: highly qualified people who often had no idea of how to communicate with their students. That situation needed to change. But how much allowance is there in the system now for academics to develop their own teaching styles, and how constraining are the demands placed on them by training professionals?

I listened to a discussion between my daughter, who has just graduated, and some of her peers about the different quality of people who had taught them. They universally agreed that they learnt most and got the best marks from courses taught by people who did not use PowerPoint and suggest masses of material to download from the internet. They agreed that they did better when forced to take notes in lectures, when instructed to look things up - in short, to think for themselves. They said the lecturers who taught this way were in a distinct minority. The others, they felt, wanted to take the easiest way back to their research labs and send the students off with a mass-produced package.

People who are voted excellent teachers should have some input into helping with the training of other academics, sharing whatever it is that makes them exciting and successful. Whatever it is, I bet it doesn't involve slavishly following some training package.

Susan Bassnett is pro vice-chancellor at Warwick University with responsibility for campus life and community affairs.

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