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.