Thursday, 17 May 2012

And in return…

A couple of days ago, I posted a rather rambling piece on what your average sleep-deprived bleary-eyed and dyspeptic lecturer wants to see in a decent essay (read the books; don't use Comic Sans). It seemed to go down well amongst the Twitterati, students and lecturers alike.

However, education is a polymorphous process, and the demands of students should be considered too. Although many of us are rightly resistant to the consumerist ethic which this government (and previous ones) has reduced us to, it's still fair for students to require certain things from us. I'm not alone in thinking about this either: the Guardian Higher Education network is hosting a live chat tomorrow (18th May) on this subject - join in. I don't think I'll have a chance to do so, but here's my pennyworth.

(I'm going to ignore the technical details - Powerpoint, e-learning etc: it's the human qualities  which are primarily important). But I'll say this: there's no point giving a lecture if you just read off a Powerpoint screen. You may as well have emailed it to everyone. The point of getting a lot of people in a room together is so that you can talk to - and react to - each other. Presentations make you a slave to a program, whereas paying attention to your audience tells you what's working, what's not working. Similarly, ideas and personalities can't be boiled down to a screen. Technology helps immeasurably in the right context and in the hands of an expert, but it should be an assistant, not the purpose of the event.

First off, there's the problem of the rational consumer. The government's education reforms explicitly imagine that every 18-year old knows exactly what they want and what they should be given. They're wrong. However intelligent a new student might be, university should be a new and creatively destabilising experience. This is even more important in the current climate because New Labour and the Conservatives have done their very best to destroy secondary education. Rather than fostering quirky, curious, surprising students, league-table culture has forced teachers to teach to the test. Students tell me that sometimes they don't read the whole novel on their A-level courses, and about 'essay skeletons' they're given.

So they get to university and some expect a linear transmission of facts to be copied down and regurgitated. Repeat until a degree certificate appears in the post. This leads to students only reading the bare minimum (or nothing), an unhealthy dependence on lectures, and a loss of intellectual autonomy.

For me, the good university lecturer is one who leads students into taking charge of their own education (I'm not going to shame bad lecturers, but you could check out this horrible Youtube list). A good lecturer (if we're going to carry on with lectures - that's a whole other debate) is one who does these things:

  • Raises an area of debate by making it clear that an apparently obvious idea/text/situation is complicated, and therefore much more interesting than it appears;
  • Guides the students through an interpretation of texts which engage with the main idea, while making it clear that other interpretations are welcome;
  • Presents ideas in such a way that students feel compelled to think and talk about these ideas without feeling picked on or humiliated. We must require students to collaborate in their own education, without behaving like a dictator. 
  • Challenges students intellectually, within a supportive space
  • Understands that learning is difficult - and persuades a sometimes reluctant audience that the process can be enjoyable and rewarding.
  • Initiates students into an academic community rather than dictates messages from the inside to supplicants on the outside. As one excellent student put it: have some humility.
  • Enjoys a good argument and wants a conversation. If you stare down or humiliate a student who makes a point during your lecture, you're an insecure loser. Remember: inexperience isn't the same as being a moron: we can learn from our students. In many ways, teaching at The Dark Place is far more likely to prove this than Oxbridge. There, a massively disproportionate number of students are from the same few private schools, ethnicities and tight social groups. Here, my students are from a wider range of backgrounds, ages and experiences. They're less male, young, white and privileged, and they bring so much to the table which to me is unfamiliar. 
  • If you want an uninterrupted monologue, start a blog. Ahem.
  • Respects the students. 
  • Doesn't just plough through the material. An orchestra conductor doesn't just read the pages: s/he reads the orchestra and responds to their dynamic: the same should be true of us. If everyone's texting (or Tweeting rude things about the lecture), you've got it wrong. 
  • A decent lecturer understands that no student will get down or remember every point: have a short set of ideas/principles/points/approaches that they should take away as an absolute minimum. 

A good lecturer is an enthusiastic lecturer, and generates enthusiasm in return. It's harder than it looks: we don't always choose the texts we're discussing. Sometimes we're tired and overworked. Sometimes we know that the subject in hand doesn't appeal to students on first sight, even if they're generally well-disposed towards the wider field. It's our job to communicate the value of studying them. That doesn't mean we should become entertainers, or easy markers or (ugh) campus heroes. Nothing erodes respect quicker than an academic colluding with dumbing-down (except amongst those students present only for the certificate).

There's a problem with the academic terminology, of course: 'lecturer' doesn't really imply conversation (whereas a symposium was a drinking club), and teacher is also hierarchical, as Claire Warden puts it:
 "Academics are not really 'teachers' but (I hope) are enablers of learning. 'Teachers' (and this is not in any way derogatory towards teachers) suggests a fairly undemocratic space of someone who knows stuff, telling the stuff they know to people who don't know stuff. I'm not a big fan of this."
But there's still this: whatever you call us, we're the ones with the qualifications and the academic experience, whereas the students are (hopefully) intelligent and interested people. We do know about stuff and are always in the process of learning more: students know less, and it's our job to point them in the right direction to help them to know more. (Though as a good postmodernist, I'd point out that 'nobody knows anything': what I teach is ways to understand how and why we don't know anything in specialised ways.

Thinking back to my lecturers at university, they split into groups. Some were intellectually arrogant, and made no effort to disguise the fact that they thought teaching was beneath them. I coped with them but made no particular effort to impress my presence upon them. Some were lovely, eminent people who just couldn't teach: one would hand out closely-typed photocopies of his lecture, then read every word of it out, very slowly. They're the only lectures I ever skipped: I'd collect the script and leave, safe in the knowledge that I'd missed nothing. Then there was a large group who clearly lived for knowledge and didn't see any reason why I shouldn't either. That's what worked. They were enthusiastic, and encouraged us to feel the same way. They were clearly disappointed when some of us didn't feel the same way. Some were kindly, some were intimidating, but none of them let us hide at the back of the class, or not read the texts. They took the entirely reasonable view that not putting the effort in was a waste of our time as well as theirs'. They knew that we were a mixed-ability bunch, and took as much pleasure in the struggler who busted a gut to manage a 2.2 or 3rd amidst difficult circumstances as someone who strolled into a First.

By these standards, all of us lecturers are failures… sometimes. A good lecture is a magical thing, and while preparation and awareness makes it more likely, you can never tell whether it's going to happen. I've left lectures on a high, and I've left them feeling that I've bored myself, let alone the students.

It helps to remember that the sole responsibility for success is not yours: I've cancelled sessions after ten minutes because nobody had bothered to prepare: I felt guilty, but justified.

I have exemplary colleagues. They are intellectuals who take their profession and their students seriously. They are excellent communicators and have the gift of unpacking a seemingly impenetrable subject in such a way that they leave the students wanting more.

OK: your comments please.


Fenland vole said...

Oh gawd, not again. "... Oxbridge. There, the vast majority of students are from the same few private schools and tight social groups." Cambridge state school intake currently 59%. Since when has 41% (even if all of those are from private schools, which they aren't), been a "vast majority"?

The Plashing Vole said...

OK, point taken. I should have said 'massively disproportionate' intake. I'll amend it.

Ruth said...

This is really interesting & very true. However, I have to disagree with the idea that lecturers and teachers are so very different, I am a qualified primary school teacher who now teaches at a university and, to be honest, the skills are almost identical. All that changes is the material and the tone with which it is delivered. Even the teaching of young children is not about a more experienced or knowledgeable person telling a less knowledgable person what they know, it is about facillitating learning, drawing out understanding; about remembering that the very word 'education' stems from 'educare'.

Fenland vole said...

Oh gawd again. Admissions are not at all disproportionate to the pattern of applications (your chances of getting in are the same whichever kind of school you apply from). The statistics are our there. The problem is state schools not encouraging enough of their best students to apply. A problem which will only continue while people make it sound as if it is (massively) disproportionally harder for state-school pupils to get in. Which it isn't.

The Plashing Vole said...

Thanks Ruth - I do take your points. All the teachers I know are just as you say, though I do get the sense that the system does seem calibrated to grind out results rather than inquisitive little human beings.

Fenland: I accept that there's a wider cultural problem, but I don't think it's on for elite universities to claim they're the victims. I read recently about either Oxford or Cambridge's 'outreach' visits: multiple trips to Eton, Manchester Grammar and so on. Not exactly busting a gut to uncover diamonds in the rough.

Ewarwoowar said...

I'd tackle this one in a slightly different way to others and drop the academic side of it.

For me what made a good lecturer is one who I felt I could go and talk to about stuff. Lecturers who when I thought of them I would think "Yeah, they will hear me out" whether it'd be about a piece of work or personal stuff.

Obviously that's nowt to do with the lecture room but just the knowledge that SOMEONE gave a shit about you as a person helped. It did for me, anyway. And you were certainly one of the good ones Vole *weeps dramatically*