I was going to title this post “On being research active and being a good teacher”, or some such, but instead I’ve decided to make it the ‘Last post’, i.e, the last post.
Reading the Sunday Business Post yesterday I came across some quotes by the President of NUIG and to be honest it made me despair.
Jim Browne made the statement
“The best teachers are research active – they are people who have a sense of enquiry and a sense of enthusiasm about their subject”.
I rehearsed my arguments; about how teaching involved a lot more than ‘enthusiasm’, about how there were so many counter examples to the President’s claims, about how there is no absolutely no evidence that research activity and teaching excellence are linked, about how my own teaching has suffered on occasion at the hands of my research, and then I thought: why bother?
Why bother, even if the NUIG President made this loaded and judgmental follow up statement:
“If I’m a lecturer just droning on and on about stuff I read in a book ten years ago, who’s really going to care”.
I was going to work myself into a frenzy about this one, but what’s the point? It’s a statement that falls into the ‘not even wrong’ category.
As an engineering scientist, my instinct is to believe that everything we do should be driven by evidence, by the data. But doing things in an evidence-based way does not come naturally to many, even to academics who, ironically, have spent their lives using evidence-based methods. Thus, we have the recent high-profile pleas by academics for increased funding for basic research, without going to the trouble of assembling the real evidence for how basic, academic research makes the economy and our society better. We’re just supposed to believe them because they know best. An anecdote or two about MRIs or General Relativity is good enough.
Education in Ireland, and elsewhere, is facing huge challenges, and I have some sympathy for politicians. Their ‘life expectancy’ is limited and they have a huge and natural desire to make a quick impact. They fall under the spell of buzzwords like ‘critical mass’, ‘innovation’ and knowledge economy’. But in a way, they are lambs to the slaughter. Many within the education establishment capitalise on these weaknesses – for their own benefit. Hence, for example, the transformation of efficient IoTs into high-cost TUs is driven, partly, by ambitious senior managers rather than the academics who rightly see absolutely no benefit for students in this process. (If anyone can tell me how students in Tralee will benefit from that institution being merged with CIT, I will buy you a pint or two!)
I’m not sure what the future holds. As a country we take pride in our third level participation rates but we don’t seem to know how to pay for it; we have no ideas about how to make the whole sector sustainable. But it’s a hard problem and it is not helped by those of a left-wing persuasion who make ludicrous statements about universities desiring to be ‘profit-making’ institutions. In fact, the problem is that, currently, there isn’t a ‘bean’ in the system and institutions are scrambling around, often sacrificing principle, to try to makes ends meet. They might be going about it in an excessively bureaucratic and managerialist way but the intention is to make the system pay its way, not to make a profit.
Recent developments in this area have been an exercise in ‘kicking the can down the road’, at least until after the next general election. At a recent meeting in the RIA I was struck by our inability, as academics, to get to the heart of the problem, i.e., that the third level sector is expected, and expecting, to do too much, with too few resources.
Yet, we persist in expanding our portfolio of activities, buying into the prestige race, all the time neglecting, I am sorry to say, our very raison d’etre, i.e., undergraduate education of our population. If anyone doubts this, check out the average undergraduate laboratory in the sciences and engineering.
And so, as the ‘teacher season’ approaches, everyone will have their say about how the Leaving Cert is dysfunctional, about how entry to third level needs to undergo a radical transformation, about rote learning, problem solving, critical thinking, 21st century skills, learning outcomes, graduate attributes, creativity, emotional intelligence, flexibility, adaptability, innovation, apprenticeships, entrepreneurship, coding, philosophy, continuous assessment, and all the countless number of buzzwords that have infected the world of education. And nearly everyone will be shooting from the hip.
And I don’t really have the energy for it any more, and I’m not sure I have anything new to say at this point.
So after about four years and more than 40,000 hits, this blog comes to an end while I focus on what I’m paid to do: teach and do research.
Tks for reading!