Not being there

Recently I was having a fairly casual conversation with a senior Irish civil servant (not from the Department of Education). We talked about this and that, about politics, about football, and then this: what, he asked me, would I say to the charge that too many lecturers in Irish universities just didn’t turn up when they were supposed to. Apparently this particular civil servant’s daughter was studying at one of our universities, and she had greatly disturbed her father when she reported to him that her lecturer in one key module was almost never there. He never attended the lectures of his module, and instead one of his postgraduate supervisees would turn up and do the teaching (though admittedly not badly). He had consulting hours posted on his office door, but more often than not he wasn’t there at those times; sometimes there would be a note advising students whom to turn to instead. And after the exams results were published, when students wanted feedback and advice, he wasn’t there either, and again a supervisee would step into the role.

OK, so what do I say to this? Deny that it is happening? Suggest it is most untypical? Say that it may not be so wrong, if the lecturer is pursuing some other important activity, such as a research project? Actually, none of these things. The alleged miscreant was not in my university, so I said I couldn’t comment, beyond saying that students are absolutely entitled to the full attention of their lecturers, though there could be times (exceptionally) when others would stand in for them. But I didn’t try to argue with him, not least because he told me he was suggesting that there should be a nation-wide student survey on this issue.

Really and truly, I don’t think we have a big faculty absenteeism problem. In fact, if I were sure of my ground I might have suggested that whatever problem there may be is probably less serious than absenteeism in the private sector or indeed in the public service (including my friend’s government department). But I could not really put my hand on my heart and say that the kind of experience he had described was totally unique. However, where it happens it is often because, for example, a lecturer is on sabbatical or is involved in another project necessitating his short-term secondment. Sometimes postgraduates will take some classes for good educational reasons unrelated to any absence of the person in charge of the module.

But of course the suggestion in such conversations is often one of two things: that we don’t value teaching obligations as highly as we should; or indeed that there are some lecturers who are delinquent and who treat teaching and student support as an inconvenience. I think the latter is very rare, but I guess it happens. The question that my friend put to me was how, when it does happen, we deal with it.

The problem with dealing with such cases is that whatever method is chosen runs the risk of compromising the cherished view that academics are, to the greatest extent possible, intellectually autonomous and do not have to organise their time in accordance with industrial assumptions about attendance and work plans. But on the other hand, asserting that academics are not subject to instruction as to their workload or its organisation makes the profession appear anarchic and, to those outside, possibly work shy. It also raises the accusation by some that academic freedom is seen primarily as a claim to be freed from any kind of accountability.

I am not really suggesting any answer to all of this here. Intellectual integrity and freedom should not be compromised lightly or at all. But equally as a profession we cannot argue that how we appear to our students and stakeholders is none of their business. As academics, we need to put forward a charter of what we do and what we provide and how we do it, and this needs to be acceptable to our stakeholders. If we cannot do that or are unwilling to, some of those stakeholders have the means to inflict pain on us. I think it is time that the explanation of our code of conduct become more sophisticated.

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7 Comments on “Not being there”

  1. Mark Dowling Says:

    I think the main problem is that the student herself plainly felt she had no recourse within her own university to know why she was not receiving the access to the qualified person that not only her university promised, but the person promised on his own behalf by providing office hours.

    All too often academic freedom means protection of academics alone – students are merely incidental, and the codes of conduct which apply to them are far more severe in operation and impact than on academics who have the protection of professional union advice.

  2. Vincent Says:

    There is a third. That Daddy asked Daughter why she failed a Course and the beautiful little Princess named in expectation, Medb. Gave Daddy a load of old codswallop. Then having you on tap as it were, decided to bend your ear with third party chit-chat. Even Judge Judy would have told him it would be inadmissible.

    But dear Lord it points to something very worrisome logic.

    • Niall Says:

      Where does it say anything about the girl failing her course?

      • Vincent Says:

        If she is not failing, where is the source of the fuss then.
        Given that in the vast majority of situations the lectures are done months if not years in advance. So what earthly difference does it make who is Reading it if it is well written in the first place.
        The contact hour in the office is a different animal all together. There speaking to the person who put the thing together may well matter.

  3. kevin denny Says:

    Turning up for class is not an option for academics- it is, or should be, mandatory. There may be occasional exceptions but sending in a post grad’ on a regular basis is not acceptable. The students should report it and the Head of Department should do something about it. I would say the example you describe is very unusual. I can think of one case where someone effectively “contracted out” some of his teaching on a private basis to some pal but that was unusual and would not be regarded as acceptable.
    However this thread does highlight the somewhat ambivalent attitudes towards teaching amongst academics. If you look at any university web site there will be plenty of propaganda about how “we value our students, committed to high quality teaching blah blah…”.
    Now consider the career of a “successful academic”: if you are a superstar – a top-notch reseacher- getting out of teaching is usually a priority and is usually facilitated by the university. The other route is via administration, becoming Dean, Vice-something or other, President etc. Again, teaching usually goes out the window. In other words, teaching is for “the little people”. I would guess this is a common practice in universities worldwide.
    Actions speak louder than words and this sends a clear signal to students, colleagues and tax-payers that teaching really isn’t a priority, we just say so.
    I am told that the President of NYU teaches a class every year on the basis that he won’t ask staff to do something he won’t do himself. Now thats what I call leadership.

  4. Liam Delaney Says:

    Agree with Kevin. If someone is simply not showing up to a class that has been assigned to them, then its clearly a straight issue for the Head of Department. It is not an issue of academic freedom.

    A couple of points though

    – It is not considered unusual for advanced PhD students to lecture to undergraduates in many universities. It should not necessarily be assumed that just because a PhD student is teaching that this means some duty has been neglected. In general, we need to think about the role that PhD students play in delivering courses in Ireland. There are a number of advantages to having PhD students play a role, not least of which building their CV and creating a more competitive and rounded PhD graduate pool. But done badly, it can come across to the students like they are being cheated.

    – There is poor understanding about the types of commitments that go along with large research grants in Irish universities. The voices that complain about active researchers not teaching enough have become a lot louder than the voices asking for some basic recognition that running a research programme is time-consuming and requires support and recognition from the university. For example, the person in the vignette described in the post may have been running a team of 50 researchers with all the responsibilities that entails. Perhaps a better solution would have been a more honest system whereby his/her university insisted on a time buy out from one of the grants. It would be hard not to think from the way the vignette is presented that this person is some sort of delinquent. But perhaps, he/she is doing their best to keep a research team afloat with the limited support given to them.

    • kevin denny Says:

      Some buy-out is fine and I am not averse to some trade-off between teaching and research so that those who are not research active – i.e. the people who just sit all day around yacking – do more teaching. But I think its very bad if some do no teaching at all. After all, we want students to be in contact in with good researchers. Moreover I think of teaching as part of a core commitment so people shouldn’t take on commitments, like the 50 researchers, if they can’t do the “day job”.

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