and now for something not so completely different

I’ve been neglecting the blog again while teaching intensified again, but now the tsunami of marking is receding and exposing the wreckage of my research in its wake, I figure its worthwhile sharing (or at least archiving here) the (very ordinary) contributions from my recent reiteration as a student participating in a mandatory Graduate Certificate of Higher Education.

Trying to teach, administer, research and be a student has not been easy over the past twelve weeks, but I have gained a renewed sympathy for higher education students. The experience of enrolling, following unit guides, managing readings, assessments and contributions, missing deadlines and participating in the faceless, clinical online only course mode, in the margins of an already heavy marginalised existence, has been a positive one overall, but I’m reasonably confident everything I have taken away from the certificate could have been generated in a half-day workshop with some pre-reading, but heh what do I know?

Teaching and Learning in Higher Education

How has your own educational journey shaped the way you see the role and the responsibilities of a tertiary educator?

My transition away from studying Science and Law and the move to the Humanities and Creative Arts, meant exposure to a range of teaching styles as part of my undergraduate experience: from the biology professor you could mistake for Zizek, to the endlessly disorganised, but amazingly captivating linguistics professor.

My views as to what makes a ‘good’, ‘effective’ or even ‘excellent’ teacher have always been a little different to those of my peers. I recall being struck by the vacuousness of a very popular lecturer: big personality with energetic lectures, full of humour and anecdotes and almost entirely bereft of any intellectual content.

Conversely I found lecturers who seemed to drive students away from their lectures and tutorials with poor delivery, or technology management skills, or other issues, but who, in a one- to-one situation, shone as superb mentors.

Ramsden (2003 pp.93-9) proposes six principles of effective teaching: organisation, stimulation of interest, understandable explanations, empathy with students’ needs, feedback on work, clear goals, and encouraging independent thought’ (p. 87). Useful categories, if not definitive, but in my experience academics often demonstrate capacity in some of these categories, and many others, but it is rare to see those whose accomplishments in teaching span all of the many elements that are part of an effective and responsible tertiary educator.

I’ve very interested in my current colleagues at Deakin, their approach to assessment, curriculum development, student learning and enjoy gaining knowledge from their experience and discussing our often polarised approaches. I’ve also learned a great deal from reading all the responses to this module, but does all this ‘shape’ my perspective on the roles and responsibilities of a tertiary educator? I’m not sure.

What challenges do the current generation of students offer you? Do you believe these challenges ARE different to previous generations?

Among the many issues, triumphs, obstacles, joys, and difficulties students engage us with, it is the complicated notion of the student identity, as it is constructed and conceived of by the Higher Education industry and institutions, that I find the most challenging. The conditions involved in being a student are fairly stable, from memory my undergraduate peers were as equally distracted by the demands of social life, employment, domestic and family expectations and other commitments, as students are today. New technologies aside, what has changed most profoundly is both the increased emphasis on higher education degree and the tenuous connection this has on career employment post degree. The myth (often perpetuated by us) of higher education degrees as necessary precursors to better employment and lifelong learning has been shattered by the open structures for learning (reinvigorated through digital and social media) and the ongoing recession, particularly in the US and UK where graduates are just as likely to be employed/unemployed as non-graduates (Weissmann, 2012).

Claims, like those of Ramsden (2003: 86), that the “…‘quality of student learning should be improved and can be improved..” on first reading seem appropriate, but are actually characteristic of a more insidious drive towards massification that is so firmly entrench in the globalised model of higher education model. Ramsden has a point, but misses entirely, surely the challenge is not that we must always see to do ‘better’, but that we must constantly re-evaluate what it is that we do, how we do it, what principles and practices we operate on and question the market and endless and unshaped expansionism. As Alvin Toffler noted, ‘The illiterate of the 21st Century, will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn’, which is why I am very supportive of the compulsory graduate certificate in higher education, although I’ve found it almost impossible to fit into a busy trimester of teaching and research.

How does this shape your overall teaching?

The lack of formal training, beyond simple administrative briefing, available for casual teachers and new academics across the higher education industry generally, and in the humanities specifically, was indeed a shock when I began tutoring in 2003. Accepting a short-term teaching-intensive contract in 2008, the only available training (a two hour ‘briefing’ session) concentrated on issues of plagiarism and cheating, misconduct, and the timesheet paperwork. What went on during the ‘teaching’ part of the job was of importance institutionally only in terms of retention, grades, completions and recruitment.

On the one hand, this represents a level of trust, suggesting we can all get on with the job without intrusive oversight as to the implementation of the curriculum, minimising intervention in our pedagogical capacity. On the other, it signals a disinterest and devaluation of the most important function of universities and forces the dependence on superficial and inaccurate student satisfaction sampling.

This institutional distancing drove me to applying my research skills to the domain of higher education itself, as a parallel research interest, and I whole-heartedly concur with Kane (et al 284): “purposeful reflection on their teaching plays a key role in assisting our participants to integrate the dimensions of subject knowledge, skill, interpersonal relations, research/teaching nexus and personality into recognised teaching excellence.”

What do you see as the biggest challenge facing your own journey towards being a tertiary educator who is able to offer quality learning to an increasingly diverse student population?

Breaking students out of the near comatose learning experience of high school, helping them to transition from an uncomplicated use of social media and new technology towards that of a critical, empowered, digitally networked learner. Personally, my biggest challenge is that of assessment. When I first began teaching, I created grading rubrics as a way to help smooth out the arbitrary nature of assessment, but more recently I’ve come to see the grading assessment of students work entirely unnecessary altogether and seek to ensure that any assessment structures I employ above all work to restore the intrinsic drive to learning that I can see being expunged from my own children in the primary school systems and further systematically dismantled by the increasingly standardised secondary system.

I’ve recently been inspired by the work of Alfie Kohn (http://vimeo.com/47765590) and my work in games studies and what is emerging as ‘critical university studies – link has intersected over concerns of the directions of the gamification of education – the inclusion of badges, levels, achievements, awards and other systems of ‘pointsification’ as part of the student the ultimate expunging of the intrinsic desire to learn.

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