Wednesday, 15 May 2013

What do we want? More lectures?

Another day, another survey pointing out that students are getting barely more time in lectures, weakly tied in with unexamined claims that a) they want more b) this is a disgrace given the fees charged and b) this is a good thing.


The easy bit first. You students are paying a lot more for your education. BUT: universities aren't getting any more money under the fees system. Some are getting a lot less. The government has stopped paying universities the shortfall between the lower fees and the real cost of running institutions. You pay the lot now. So you're paying more and we're getting the same or less. As you can imagine, that doesn't help staffing levels, infrastructure updates etc. It just puts consumer pressure on us.

I can see why lots of supervised class time is essential in medicine, pharmacy, engineering etc. After all, I spent my time in metalwork classes making weapons of various types, thanks to the benign neglect of a teacher subsequently sectioned for trying to blackmail a major supermarket. But that's another story. You need medical students in class sawing up bodies under the close eye of an academic. It's when they take their work home with them that problems arise.

But I teach English in one department and Cultural Studies in another. The demands of the courses aren't the same. What we're trying to inculcate is critical skills. How to read carefully. Analysis. Looking for deeper cultural structures. Sensitivity to nuance. Awareness of the ideological, political, hegemonic and cultural paradigms in which texts and audiences exist.

These things require reflection and research. Lectures and seminars exist to provide students with the tools required to improve their own practice, and to point them in the right direction. We show them the ways in which texts can be examined, do some practice, test some of the critical perspectives and send them home to try it for themselves.

Personally, I'd like to see less of my students.

Let me explain that. Although a lot of my students are diligent and well-prepared, a lot aren't. Even at the end of the year-long modules I've just taught, significant numbers of students are turning up to classes without even bringing copies of books they openly admit they haven't read. They then waste the time of the prepared students by demanding back-to-basics discussions: who characters are, plot details and so on. In the media classes, we get students who can't name a newspaper or don't know what differentiates the BBC from commercial channels. Personally, I don't see how more contact hours with someone who hasn't made the slightest effort to prepare helps anyone. I can extol the virtues of active self-education and the joys of intellectual inquiry until I'm blue in the face, but we'll both go home depressed and resentful. Even more than usual.

What we want is students coming to class and saying things like 'I've been reading X's book and her theory is different from yours because…'. It does happen. Not very often, but it does. In the humanities, lectures and seminars should be the starting point for an unseen iceberg of private study. If we can engage the students' interest, it happens. But too often, students have been trained (by schools, and by a general consumerist ethos) to assume that classes are where we tell them 'the answers', even though the key truth of postmodern humanities is that there are no true answers.

Furthermore, although I love teaching and never feel I've understood anything until I've taught it to others, there's a limit. I'm drained and exhausted at the moment. Any more teaching and I'd have to stop reading, which means dumber and more limited lectures. It means spending a few minutes less on each essay. It means never having the chance to learn your names and get a sense of your childcare problems, your financial difficulties and your interest (or otherwise) in the material. Of course some universities have solutions for this. In some posh ones, the postgraduate students do proportionately more of the boring teaching while the more single-minded professors have the intellectual fun out in the archives and at conferences. It disgusts me. Come to The Hegemon, where active researchers share their work with undergraduates every day. The other solution, which poor, big and cynical universities like, is shifting everything online. Video lectures, MOOCs, buying in pre-packed courses and the like. Again, it's a pile-em-high, shut-them-up solution. You get what looks like an education because you're watching someone talk about stuff, but it isn't really. When you kill someone in World of Warcraft, they're not dead. It's just pixels. When you 'attend' an online lecture, you're not really getting an education. You can't put your hand up and make a point. The lecturer doesn't know what your last essay said, or what you've been reading. You can't propose a new idea to your class for them to pull it apart or adopt it themselves. In cyberspace, nobody can hear you think.

League tables, SATs and all the paraphernalia of the pseudo-scientific pedagogical system has persuaded students that there are simple truths and that they can be acquired at the feet of an adept. It's authoritarian and it's wrong. It's anti-educational because it removes the student's agency and duty of enquiry.

My university is currently trying desperately hard to improve attendance. I support that: attending classes improves students intellectually and on paper. Talking to me and talking to other students is the route to success, however that's defined. But simply herding people into classes on the basis that £X in fees should = X hours at a desk is ludicrous. This isn't a gym in which X hours on a treadmill burns x calories. What they're paying for (and what the state should be paying for instead) is access to wisdom, resources, evaluation and above all time to educate themselves, with our help. Seriously: skipping class to read a book is a far better use of your time than sloping in, slumping at the back, signing in and checking Facebook.

Do students really want more lectures? If they came to everything available, I might believe them. But we're all used to half-populated lectures, to a bunch of students disappearing between lectures and seminars (brainwashed into thinking that only the lecturer has anything useful to say rather than their peers too) and months in which office hours – the only time they'll ever get one-to-one discussions here – see not a single student.

Education's really simple. Read the set texts. Read the secondary material. Read anything else that catches your eye. Come to class and talk. Ask questions. Make observations. Talk in seminars. Ignore the people who roll their eyes or call you a swot. If your lecturers aren't putting in the effort, make a fuss. If there aren't enough teachers (and there aren't), say so: to your teachers, to your Students' Union, to the Vice-Chancellor, to the National Student Survey.

Above all, don't be a consumer. Be a participant. Educate yourself with our help. Don't just turn up and expect a certificate.

1 comment:

Historian on the Edge said...

Colleague to no-show student: 'WHy haven't you attended this term?'
Student toff (prob the same as moans about lack of contact hours): 'I've been rather busy.'