Teaching contradictions

By Marcus Wilson 22/07/2011 4


Yesterday I was at a meeting of the university’s ‘Teaching Advocates’.  About eighteen months ago, advocates for good teaching were appointed in every faculty, and I was asked to take on the role for the Faculty of Science and Engineering. Basically, it means that I try to promote good teaching practice – such as by running lunchtime discussion sessions on some aspect of teaching (which reminds me to organize another one) and helping colleagues write learning outcomes for their papers, etc.

One of the topics we discussed was the university’s Teaching Awards. The 2011 round of these is coming up shortly.  It’s fairly clear that different parts of the university have rather different attitudes towards these. Actually, I’ve found with teaching in general that different faculties have very different approaches to things. That’s why I think that we need a teaching advocate in every faculty – to put a local ‘spin’ on things. For example, ‘reflective practice’ seems to be second nature in the Faculty of Education – it’s just something you do – but here in Science and Engineering it is almost taboo. I mean, it’s well-hammered into students that ‘how they feel about something’ isn’t a part of science – and blowing your own trumpet (i.e. identifying things you’ve done well) is akin to pomposity and should be avoided. Moreover, the kind of person who becomes a scientist or engineer (particularly the kind who becomes a physicist) is the sort of person who would at all costs avoid drawing attention to themselves – writing about themselves, especially in a positive light (i.e. putting themselves up to be shot-down) is a complete no-no. Far better to keep a low profile – if you can do ‘invisible’, so much the better.

That’s a bit of an aside.  Back to the teaching awards.  About this time last year, I told my students that they should consider nominating any teachers they felt were worthy of it, and gave them the web-link in order for them to do it. I didn’t say ‘vote-for-me’, I didn’t name anyone, I just thought that the best thing to do was to make sure that my students knew that they could vote, and to encourage them to vote (being reluctant physicists/engineers and all that).    Anyway, that’s what I did. However, as we discussed yesterday, there are many here who believe that we (lecturers) shouldn’t mention anything at all about the awards to students (or even other staff), lest it be mistaken for lobbying.   That I might be lobbying for votes never crossed my mind – maybe it should have done – but lobbying certainly wasn’t my intention anyway.   I should add that votes by students is only one step towards a teaching award – if you have the minimum number of votes (which, of course, biases in favour of people who teach large classes in easy subjects, but that’s another discussion) you then have to prepare a portfolio, which is what the real judging is on.

The problem if one is not allowed to do anything that could be regarded as lobbying (i.e. talk to students) is that most students will probably be  unaware that the awards exist. The awards are mentioned on official university emails and newsletters, etc., but how many people actually read them? Teaching awards are a really important way of recognizing and promoting good teaching (i.e. show that we actually value it) and so we should give them all the publicity we can. Isn’t that the point of an award?  That means talking about them, which is what I’m doing with this blog entry. That’s my view. I know some people would differ on that. Shoot me down.

 

 

 

 


4 Responses to “Teaching contradictions”

  • Marcus – I think you’re right on the ball with this! The point of the awards, surely, is to encourage good teaching practices – which include talking directly with your students! If this comes across as lobbying and other teachers are forced to also talk directly to their students – then where is the harm? By and large students are capable of making their own decisions on the quality of a teacher, even if they are lobbyed – but as you said you wont get anything out of them if they aren’t even aware of them!

    I do take issue with the “physicists avoid drawing attention to themselves” though! I could cite examples like Carl Sagan, Richard Feynman etc (but then again I get the distinct impression that they didn’t ask for the spotlight they recieved, they just made the most out of it!).But mostly because if it’s true, then there isn’t any hope for me as a physicist! :(

  • Leave your comment here…No shooting down from me, Marcus! I’m right behind you on this one & I really don’t see how alerting students to the existence of the awards is in any way lobbying for yourself. Now, if you said something like “these awards are on & I want you to vote for me, me, ME!” then of course I would feel quite differently :-)

    I’m not sure that some element of self-reflection isn’t required of scientists, though – how else can one be quite sure that one doesn’t have the wrong handle on something? That (since Elf mentioned Feynman) one’s not been sucked in by cargo-cult science?

  • Marcus, completely agree with you – if you don’t tell the students about the awards then who will? It sounds like you are doing it in a very careful manner.

    I do have to challenge your following statement though:

    “writing about themselves, especially in a positive light (i.e. putting themselves up to be shot-down) is a complete no-no. Far better to keep a low profile – if you can do ‘invisible’, so much the better.”

    I think this is dangerous thinking for any academic. If you look carefully at those who actually succeed in science they are those who know how to promote their successes. If you just sit in your lab or lecture theatre waiting to be discovered, unless you are extremely lucky, you are going to be sadly disappointed.
    If you want to do well in science you have to actively promote your successes (without being obnoxious about it), apply for grants and awards and make sure people know who you are and what you are doing.
    It’s a lesson I learnt a little too late in my career, and I would hate to see any early career academics make the same mistake.

  • Hi Marcus
    “…I mean, it’s well-hammered into students that ‘how they feel about something’ isn’t a part of science – and blowing your own trumpet (i.e. identifying things you’ve done well) is akin to pomposity and should be avoided. Moreover, the kind of person who becomes a scientist or engineer (particularly the kind who becomes a physicist) is the sort of person who would at all costs avoid drawing attention to themselves – writing about themselves, especially in a positive light (i.e. putting themselves up to be shot-down) is a complete no-no. Far better to keep a low profile – if you can do ‘invisible’, so much the better.”

    Not quite true. You need to make a distinction between the scientist and their science.

    Good scientists are not only good technically; they are good communicators and know how to ‘sell’ their science. Their presentations, papers, etc show they understand the context of their work, the exact nature of the contribution they’ve made (novelty, insights etc), the dependence of their work on previous work, the value system of their audience, and they present their contributions accordingly.

    Good physics papers are modest and objective (as you say), but focussed on selling the science.

    Scientists of the class of Feynman and Sagan have that rare ability to find simple analogies, insights, and images that allow them to ‘pitch’ their science to a lay audience.

    One of the tough lessons for any scientist is learning that just about everything you write, whether a paper, a funding proposal, or client report, is a sales pitch. You have to figure out who the audience is, what their value system is, and deliver. Most importantly, you have to accept that there are other value systems besides the modest, objective, evidenced-based approach we have in science. This is especially important once you move away from papers to funding proposals where the value system is based on commercial advantage, financial return, and picking winners (teams and projects), and to most scientists, is distasteful.

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