Do we recognise good teaching in our universities?
It is some 35 years ago that I first entered a room to teach students. That was in Cambridge, and I was doing a PhD and earning a little extra income by doing some teaching in my field. I hope the students got something from it, but I sometimes wonder – I was very inexperienced at the time, and like most new teachers very nervous. Two years later I became a lecturer in the School of Business Studies of Trinity College Dublin, and by that time I had become more confident and was very enthusiastic; and there followed a 20-year career teaching some 4,000 students, many of whom I will meet occasionally, some now in very senior positions.
I always enjoyed teaching, and particularly liked participative classes in which I would learn a lot from some very bright students. I didn’t like examining so much, not least because you could not help being aware of the effect on young people’s lives and careers of the results. But when in 2000 I had to give up regular teaching on taking up the post of President of Dublin City University, I did feel significant regret that this part of my life would be missing; and now in RGU I wonder from time to time whether I should give a little of my time to getting back into a classroom.
In 2000 I had been a Professor for ten years. It is a rank I was able to get almost entirely on the strength of my research. If teaching played a role in it, I was and am unaware of it. And as many academics know, that’s how the academic promotion system in almost all universities works. That is not always a bad thing, because academic life is about scholarship and research output demonstrates scholarly achievement. However, the traditional key core mission of a university is to teach, and if we want people to perform this vital task well we need to show recognition of excellence in this field – and on the whole we don’t. Universities go through occasional soul searching about whether they could do more to reward good teachers, including those who do not have an eye-catching research output. But mostly the ideas they come up with don’t produce that result. Annual teaching awards – which many universities have and which are of course fine – are not enough.
One of the aims I have had for some time is to find a framework for rewarding excellent teaching and allowing it to be a significant part of staff career development; and to be able to apply such a framework without weakening the search for scholarly excellence in research. We must do this not least because we cannot really persuade students that they matter unless we can show them that what we do for them counts when we take important decisions on staffing. We need to get better at this.
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