Teaching academics the art

08 December 2011 - 01:50 By Jonathan Jansen

University professors cannot teach; in fact, most of them were never intended to teach.

They attained their PhDs in fields such as chemistry or economics or labour law to prove that they could do research and advance knowledge in their fields.

Except for the few who studied and practised teaching, academics in general have no clue how to teach. Except they do not know that.

Because everyone can open their mouths and utter words, academics think they can teach. Because our society has so demeaned the complex science and art of teaching, any idiot with a book in his hand believes that he or she can convey the profound truths of a discipline.

What passes for teaching in many of our universities would scare the paying public. I have seen academics download Wikipedia scraps as official class materials. I have seen thoughtless lecturers repeat the same examination questions year after year.

I still see antediluvian creatures using overhead projectors in classes packed with "millennials" who prefer using i-Pad technologies as their preferred mode of engaging the worlds around them. I have grown tired of seeing witless scholars reading from textbooks - a task students could have done in bed after downloading an e-book.

When a student can pass a course based simply on the notes handed out by a teacher, they have been short-changed in teaching.

The purpose of teaching is to open up the mind; to challenge preconceptions; to destabilise every-day truths; to sharpen the capacity to question; to broaden the scope of what is known; to instil the habits of thought and to open up the sheer joy of learning.

The culture of "notes" and "note-taking" has a very different purpose - to prepare you to write and pass an exam without stretching the mind beyond what is expected.

"I have a different view to my lecturer on this topic," my student daughter told me recently.

"But the lecturer made it clear that she only wants back what she gave us in class."

I hear this all the time from students across the country.

There is, of course, a good reason for this "dumbing down" of university teaching. University managers place huge pressure on academics to reverse what they call "low throughput rates" for one simple reason - the more students fail, the less the institutions can collect in state subsidy returns. Of course I understand such an impulse.

But does that mean we sell our intellectual souls to the subsidy devil? Does that mean we reduce the teaching of university graduates to the production of a quota of canned foods from a factory plant?

The demise of university teaching has serious implications for democracy for one simple reason: the university might be the only remaining space in which young people could be confronted with their prejudices, where received knowledge can be disrupted, and where a new value system for future leaders could be ingrained.

When a university hands out a degree without any guarantee of the value added to the recipient's education, you sustain the uncritical, herd mentality of obedient parliamentarians where a conscience vote or an independent view on the secrecy bill would have you insulted as "a free agent".

"The value of your degree," I told students at our recent graduation, "hinges on two questions: Did we teach you to think for yourself? And did we teach you to give of yourself?"

I reminded them how easy it is to buy a degree off the internet, and that where you study makes all the difference.

Smart universities now have centres for teaching and learning to teach professors how to teach.

Smart universities shift their resources from the social welfarism that concentrates teaching on playing "catch-up" with the weakest students from the school system to engaging all university students in higher learning.

Smart universities no longer evaluate professors only for their research performance but also for their teaching abilities. Smart universities no longer pump their students full of knowledge but on a regular basis ask fundamental questions like "what is a university education for"?

Smart universities now insist their professors (and not recent honours graduates) are included among those who teach first-year undergraduate students.

When you choose with your child a university for 2012, be bold and ask the university officers: "How serious are you about undergraduate teaching?"

Your choices will be sharply limited to a handful of universities and, inside of them, to a handful of programmes.