By MERLIN CROSSLEY
Over my career I have seen the emphasis shift from teaching towards research. There are several reasons for this.
Accepted measures of research productivity have become more prevalent. As things have become more internationally competitive, these metrics have become more important both to university managers (like me) and to international students. We have no choice but to continue to focus on research.
But this does not mean that teaching does not matter. Good teaching is important not only to the students but also to the cohesion of academic departments. We all live in local communities, and though they are not necessarily internationally famous, the everyday impacts they have on our lives make them very important indeed.
One way to build good departmental communities is by elevating the effort put into teaching. Building up a community of scholars that cares about first-year teaching is a critical first step. This makes a good foundation of second-year students and after that things follow automatically. Since staff tend to enthusiastically focus on their own specialities in senior years teaching in those years is nearly always good.
Ultimately this guarantees a good flow of research students, which adds enormously to the academic community since research students contribute not only in terms of their research but also by tutoring and demonstrating. They help bridge the gap between students and senior staff.
A really cohesive teaching effort can bring a whole department together since everyone can get involved. Indeed, apart from a physical building, a department really is defined by its teaching portfolio. Usually more so than by its research efforts, since the latter tend to be distinct, personal, and often incomprehensible even to neighbours in the next lab. Indeed, by their very nature research networks tend to be external – it’s not impossible for a top researcher to be like Tony Hancock’s radio ham – someone who has a friend in every city (or university) except their own!
I think many academics do care deeply about teaching. They enjoy talking with students, working with colleagues to update or improve courses or establish new ones, and many actually like being on the stage and performing in front of an audience. In teaching, if you work hard and do a good job, you may feel the rewards at once, whereas in research if your hypothesis is wrong, the results will come as a crushing blow, despite all your hard work.
Nevertheless, some academics feel that teaching, though it is intrinsically rewarding, is not recognised by university managers, that it will not lead to promotion, and that it is not really appreciated by anyone, except perhaps the students – and they will soon move on.
The problem is exacerbated by the fact that in some places this perception may have a grain of truth. And after becoming true it gets reinforced, as top young researchers are promoted and subtly the power and influence shifts more and more towards highly visible research endeavours of global significance.
Hardly a week goes by without some new global research ranking, at the institution or discipline level, and these numbers are much easier to celebrate widely than good teaching at the local level. What is more, individuals who make major contributions to research are easy to identify and ultimately most staff are recruited, and most heads of school and deans are appointed, primarily as a result of their achievements in research. So, it is hardly surprising that some staff believe universities do not value and are not good at assessing the quality of teaching.
On the other hand, several developments are shifting the dial back towards teaching. And there are some simple reasons for this.
One is just the feeling that the pendulum has swung too far, but there are stronger reasons to be confident that it will swing back.
Firstly, the number of students seeking an education is increasing, so more staff are needed, but the funding for research is plateauing, so most institutions are now appointing education-focussed staff. Extended academic calendars have been introduced in about a third of Australian universities and longer teaching times make it more cost effective to introduce education-focussed roles. So you will see more of these. This begins a cycle. As more institutions have education-focussed staff more attention is being paid to what good teaching looks like.
It remains difficult to measure the quality of teaching but the increase in digital educational strategies means that at least teaching is more visible. It is less a private affair than it once was. There are more videos and other digital traces that can be judged by others, and some institutions have also introduced peer review of teaching and teaching awards systems designed to celebrate exemplary contributions. I don’t want to say that You-Tube hits are a good measure but I have three colleagues whose videos have been watched more than a million times, and knowing their qualities as teachers, these numbers come as no surprise to me – they are superb teachers!
Finally, governments and institutions are using digital surveys to gather feedback in the form of the student voice more than ever before. Many people have reservations about relying too heavily on any single metric, such as student feedback (or indeed research citations!), but it would be odd not to make provision for feedback and wrong not to take student feedback seriously. The trick, of course, is to interpret it properly. As more university leaders and professors who have made their careers through teaching emerge, I expect there will be more confidence in management’s ability to properly assess student feedback and the various other measures of teaching quality.
I don’t think the tension between focussing on teaching or research will be resolved quickly. We’ will always have a place for all-rounders who do both, and for others that focus either on research or on education. But I do hope that by increasing the emphasis on teaching we can build stronger local academic communities, where staff support each other through the yearly challenges.
Working together can be one of the most rewarding aspects of life. It is well known that international collaborations in research are great fun and provide new perspectives and opportunities. Working on teaching projects with local colleagues face to face is just as important and rewarding and as technologies develop I expect we’ll see more global teaching collaborations too.
Professor Crossley is DVC-E at UNSW. He writes the “The Crossley Lab.”