27 November 2005

On "Teacher's block"

Do you ever get the feeling that you haven't got anything to teach, or offer?

"Chance would be a fine thing! With the kind of syllabus I am supposed to deliver, that must be a luxury only a semi-retired academic could indulge!"

Fair point. But it is not that there isn't anything to teach, more a loss of conviction that the way you are doing it is actually helping people to learn. OK, the way I am doing it. I've been teaching for almost 40 years. I've taught this particular module for nine years. Its general shape is stable, and previous evaluations and achievement rates have been fine, but I have tuned the schemes of work from cohort to cohort, of course. I've reviewed those schemes from previous years, and somehow this time around they don't "work". And this may be the last time I teach this module.

So why the crisis of confidence? It's not that the group is unresponsive; far from it. They're lively and eager to learn (which makes it more of a challenge, of course, to meet expectations). The only significant difference was the way they handled the "menu" exercise at the beginning.

(That's an exercise in which we go through all the possible material for the module, pointing out that we can't cover it all in class, and so they have to select what we do cover and what we don't.) This time they handled it in a more sophisticated way than any previous group; they asked, "Which of this material can we get from reading books and the web, and which do we really need to discuss?" We worked out the schedule on that basis, which fits perfectly with the learning and teaching strategy of the course. Great.

I'm hoist with my own petard! I've put so much of the sheer module content on the web, that if I exclude that, there ain't much left. There's plenty of arcane and detailed stuff, of course, but since the module is an 80:20 situation (in this case, 80% of the ideas can be conveyed at the informational level in 20% of the time), more about values than facts, to do that would be otiose.

I should have recognised this coming last week, and not left the prep. until now. Still, no doubt the students will rescue me. In the past such sessions have really worked well, but I have got three hours to fill... (constructively). Well, I've got my conservative back-up stuff, but I'll quite enjoy winging it again!

24 November 2005

On "Scholarship"

Recently I attended a conference (or three) on the "Scholarship" of learning and teaching. I've just been contemplating submitting a paper to another one about the same subject. But I can't help feeling they have got hold of the wrong end of the stick.

I can see the problem. A number of very well-intentioned people, concerned to improve the quality of teaching and hence learning in higher education, have decided that one of the reasons for its diminutive profile is that there is little theory, scholarship and celebrated research underpinning it. So all that should be encouraged and developed.

I can't complain. I have benefited from this agenda to the tune of £50k (about $US87k); it has allowed me to semi-retire (apologies for the clumsy not-quite-split infinitive) to concentrate on things I love doing.

But the whole enterprise is wrong-headed. We don't need more "scholarship" of learning and teaching. The more we get, the lower the quality. Some of the papers at the last two conferences were merely anecdotal; I know of no other "discipline" (with the possible pragmatic exception of "business studies") in which they would have passed peer review.

The whole discipline is stuck in a bind. It is basically a craft. But for years we (government and HE providers) have deprecated "mere" craft skills. To find them at the heart of the HE enterprise is profoundly embarrassing. The defensive response is to turn them into something else—into academic skills which can be learned in the classroom, studied via literature reviews, and researched in dissertations.

They can't be learned that way. Teaching skills are painfully acquired and honed in practice. Many of the best teachers I know have no knowledge of the "theory". The more of it there is, the less they will know of it. But academic discourse refuses to privilege experience and practical expertise.

A year or so ago, someone just about qualified on our course, on the basis of his plausible reflection and theorising of practice. He scraped through the directly observed teaching practice. This year we have one of his colleagues on the course, who is disparaging about his current practice. Practically, she is clearly streets ahead of him, already; the hoops she has really has to jump through are academic (with which on present evidence she will have no problem). But she already has the craft skills and is not "qualified"; he has the bare minimum and is "qualified".

22 November 2005

On being reactionary

We have several sides to our characters, and in particular to our values. Sometimes my impeccably liberal approach to life is sullied by the resurgence of my atavistic conservative side, which cannot be suppressed forever.

A former colleague was brilliant at managing this. She was and indeed is, a very accomplished and effective counsellor, the embodiment of empathy, warmth and genuineness for her clients. But she emerged from her sessions and (without letting slip of her professionalism of confidentiality, and only in the presence of trusted colleagues) she would—in the jargon—"abreact". She became judgemental to say the least; "What a total prat! How could such a f****** immature selfish git think she could sustain a relationship...?" and so on for five minutes or so. Then she would sigh, and say, "Sorry. That's better. I just needed to get that off my chest." When tackled about this (I was not her supervisor, just a trusted colleague and friend), she was open about it. "I can't deny that that there is a bit of me which wants to slap some clients' faces and tell them to get a life. It's better to acknowledge and vent that bit than to leave it simmering to contaminate my real practice."

It is in that spirit that I respond to the glimpse of a notice the other day. It advertised "Post-graduate learning support."

What? We have graduates who need "learning support"? OK, I concede that in particular circumstances such as specific learning disabilities like dyslexia, or overseas students working in a second or even third language, support may be needed. But surely, one thing which should be taken for granted in graduates is that they know how to learn!
What does it say about our university system that we graduate people who still need support to do what they have spent about sixteen years learning how to do, i.e. learn?

Abreaction over, for now.