Should Academics be Licensed?

 

This question was raised in the context of a session on ‘Evaluation of Teaching’ on a postgraduate course on teaching and learning in higher education.  The ‘students’ are all academics who have chosen to do this course.  And this aspect is important because in a way they are a self-selecting sample of those who are interested in developing their practice as university teachers.  So, it is of note that this question should arise in this context.

Another aspect of the context was the immediate focus of the afternoon – evaluation of teaching.

In a way this focus of attention could have produced a good deal of defensiveness, of complaints about unfair student commentary.  Sure, there was some discussion of the difficulty of interpreting student feedback on teaching, of contradictory statements.

But what would provoke the above question?

Well, it arose in a broader discussion about the ethics and politics of institutional systems for collecting student feedback on teaching.

The question was asked whether it was ethical to collect such feedback if it was not going to be used improve teaching and learning at an organisational level.  In other words – why bother, why should students or educators bother if academic managers do not use this information wisely?

Why, it was asked, were incompetent teachers allowed to continue?

It is important to remember that this question came from university teachers about university teachers.  It did not come from a tabloid journalist or populist politician.

This led to a further question: in what sense are academics a ‘profession’ like others?

If we are not required to undertake regular professional development then in what sense can we claim to be professionals like clinical psychologists, or medical doctors, or nurses and midwives – all of whom are require to demonstrate engagement with continuous professional development (CPD)?  Indeed, in Ireland over recent years, Pharmacists and Pharmacy Technicians have been required to undertake CPD in order to continue practicing.  So, why not university teachers?

One defence could be that the gaining of a PhD is a suitable proxy for a license to teach.  But is it?  It might be a requisite qualification to join the ranks of academic researchers, but teaching?  In many respects, as academics, our identities are formed around knowledge and acceptance by an epistemic community.  But teaching?  Is a PhD an adequate proxy for a license to teach?

I leave this as an open question because I don’t know.  I say I don’t know because I am not necessarily trustful of university managers (who are also academics) to act wisely in the face of a possible call for this particular form of professional license.

However, governments and academic leaders turned higher education business leaders may lead the charge towards such licensing as a way of achieving other objectives, such as greater managerial control over academic labour. There is a growing trend in the UK of promotion for early career academics being requisite on completion of training in teaching and learning in higher education courses, membership of the Higher Education Academy, and possibly achievement of a Higher Education Academy teaching award.  This was not planned.  It has emerged.

So, the current situation is not stable.  To paraphrase Marx, the only constant is change. The question is – who will determine the direction of that change?

The (im)possibility of Academic Credibility

Science Reporter Spoofs

A recent post on the retractionwatch website ‘revealed’ that a journalist was able to successfully submit a ‘spoof’ article to a series of open access journals despite the article containing glaringly obvious errors.

Depending on who you are (the editors of said journals not being one) this is entertaining reading.  But is it news?  Is it revelatory?

I don’t think so.  I don’t think so because I feel it misses crucial points.

The unprofessional acceptance of such obviously bad scholarly ‘work’ should be a note of serious concern for the academic community, especially in an age when governments are all too happy to micro-manage our work.   As the UK media are now realising, the regulatory bargain whereby professions regulate themselves is a precarious ground upon which to establish oneself.  The more public scandal attached to professions the less self-regulation will be acceptable.  The key term here is ‘public’.  This does not mean an authentic public voice.  Public here means whatever is heated up in the fire of 24/7 news (including blogs).  If something can gain enough traction to be noticeable then the chances are the degree of self-regulation accorded a profession will be diminished.  We see this everywhere.  In the UK social workers and the whole social care field have been under intense public scrutiny because of yet another ‘failure’ to secure the wellbeing of a child, ending in their death.

Yes, there was systemic failure.

Yes, systems and training need to be improved.

But politicians and media comment on these tragedies as if they are not related to the wider political environment, to the dominant political ethics.  It is as if all of those decisions to cut or privatise public services have no consequence for the lives of those who should be served well by such professionals.

And so back to academic publishing.

The ‘scandal’ of online academic journals accepting hoax articles fails to note the true nature of the political economy of higher education.

It would be nice to think that academic publishing was primarily about the free exchange of scientific knowledge, whereby our peers could scrutinise our findings, assess our methodologies, and through collegial critique improve the lot of scientific inquiry, and by implication, improve our contribution to society more widely.  That is the myth.

The reality is rather different, and to me, is the real scandal.

Career progression and performance related funding are intimately linked and form the bedrock for such publishing scandals that ‘retractwatch’ deal with.

The particular elements that contribute to academic career progression will differ from one system of higher education to another.  But ‘publish or die’ is a key aspect to academic practice, and therefore job security, worldwide.  Where this works well the publishing record reflects an academic’s contribution to their field of study.  But, even here, it is not uncommon to see the same basic content distributed across a range of academic outputs in peer reviewed journals.  A little can indeed go a long way. In the social sciences for instance, a piece of work conducted in education could conceivably be written up for journals in a range of disciplinary areas – education studies, sociology, psychology, philosophy.  The motivated and ambitious academic could strategically place the same text in a range of journals on the understanding that they are unlikely use the same reviewers.  Of course, such strategists can come a cropper and be found out.  The reputational damage can be severe, and reputation is everything.  But there is an imperative to  publish, and the newer you are as an academic, the more pressure there is.  Another side to this is that acting as journal reviewers, indeed sitting on editorial boards, is good for the CV.  Taking short cuts can seem appealing when securing tenure is your main objective.  This pressure can increase when managers put pressure on you because they too are measured by the productivity of their staff (no matter how much the term ‘collegiality’ is used).

Linked to this is performance related funding.  It is increasingly the case that governments can nudge higher education into line through funding.  Although a degree of central funding is still quite normal around the world, some governments have also introduced elements of performance related funding.  Two areas where this is becoming increasingly evident is teaching and research.  By teaching I don’t really mean the evaluation of quality but rather the move towards student satisfaction surveys in determining levels of government core funding.  The good side of this is the attention it gives to teaching quality.  But in the real world Harvard, Oxford or Yale don’t really have to worry that much about how their teaching is judged because the fact you went to Harvard, Oxford or Yale counts a lot more on your CV that the poor teaching of Professor X.  Where this does impact the most is lower down the academic food chain, on intermediate institutions.

Alongside this is the rise of research as a quality judgement on academic institutions.  High research reputation attracts a lot of money.  It can attract a lot of money from governments looking for a good return on public investment.  We all teach.  We all do administration.  What differentiates one institution from another is research – both quantity and quality.  High research reputation can also attract the brightest faculty and students – and international student fees.  This leads to investment decisions within institutions and therefore what academic life feels like at an individual level.  If you are lower down the ranks this can be experienced as getting pressure from both ends – increased teaching, increased scrutiny of your teaching, and increased pressure to publish and attract research grants.  This can be pretty punishing.  You don’t want to have anything as frivolous as a young family while doing all that.  But, if you are reasonably successful as attracting research funding you can move all of that troublesome teaching and marking down the supply chain to part-time staff and post-graduate students.  In other words you can simultaneously reduce the unit cost of teaching and increase your own time to publish and conduct important scholarly activity such as editing and reviewing.

So, lets imagine a situation where an academic is fielding increased teaching due to the rise in student numbers; is conscious of needing to please their students (this doesn’t actually have to do with quality teaching as such which might not be necessarily pleasurable for students if it takes them out of their comfort zones); is dealing with pressure to publish; is trying to secure research funding; and is conducting their scholarly responsibilities by taking on the role of reviewer for a number of academic journals.

Is it really any surprise that poor, incorrect or bogus articles get published?

We, as a community of scholars, should do what we can to minimise such systemic errors.  But, the real scandal is that education, and higher education, has been made a commodity.  Any sense of the wider purpose of education in the cultivation of a whole person, an ethical citizen, is lost.

grade point averages and the love letters sent by the wind and rain, the snow and moon

marking

i picked up a tweet earlier today from @mike_rat concerning the possible/probable introduction of GPA (Grade Point Average) scores.  this emanates from the UK’s Higher Education Academy facilitating a discussion on the introduction of GPA in the UK.

alongside this a number of UK universities are considering introducing GPA unilaterally (i think).

i am not sure why this particular item caught my attention, and why it ‘troubled’ me.  i paused, and tried to locate where the feeling for this piece of news resided.  i felt my heart pounding – like a flight/fight response.  for a moment i wondered whether this was just an effect of the viral flu i have been suffering and/or the tinnitus.

for reasons i am still unsure of (and mike was very accommodating to my strange intervention) i tweeted these lines from the Tao Te Ching:

“Fill your bowl to the brim and it will spill. Keep sharpening your knife and it will blunt.” Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

what on earth did i mean?  more properly, what on earth did these words mean to me and how did i think they related to the introduction of GPA?

the tweet appeared just after i had sent a student a very strongly worded email detailing how their draft dissertation would not pass the grade.  all the way through reading and commenting on their work i struggled with what we ‘scientifically’ call formative and summative evaluation.  how NEUTRAL these words appear. 

i wanted to ENCOURAGE the student’s efforts, enthusiasm for the topic, commitment to social justice.  i wanted to coach her in skills and tricks of the trade that could enable her to communicate her meaning more clearly.  i still hold to what i said, to those nurturing comments in bold.  as i wrote those comments, thought those thoughts, offered my own experience, i thought of what this degree might mean for her.  i thought about the personal-emotional-financial investment, how this could be more than a private act as much as a family and communal act.  i thought about my responsibility in enabling her to SUCCEED. 

and then i thought about the network of texts into which she was now inserted – application forms, grade sheets, dissertation cover sheets, applications for extension, student progress reports, etc.  i felt the weight of this.  i knew she would be judged harshly and that i had better get in first so that she had some chance to get through with something that would affirm her.

so, she was attempting to pour nourishment into her bowl.

i contemplated grading her according to our 100 point scale, index her successes and failures according to percentage points against each descriptor.  

i contemplated, in other words, to dehumanise what was an absolutely human endeavour.  

i contemplated reducing her fears and hopes, anxieties and dreams to mere numbers.  

i contemplated asking her to fill her bowl to the brim rather than choose carefully the food that nourishes, because filling to overflow appears more valued than the wisdom that might arise from her educational engagement.  

and the knife that is blunted?  the GAP perhaps; every technology of division and discrimination.

i know how students (i am one now myself) may welcome the detailed gradation offered by GPA systems.  i know for myself how attracted i am to the descriptors and 100 point scale offered by our masters courses compared to the pass/fail on our professional doctorates.  i know how as a teacher they help me direct attention to specific areas for development and to make my job of commenting easier when i am tired and find ‘creating’ hard.  but surely these things come AFTER.

they come AFTER the relationship that is at the core of learning (relationship between teacher and student, between student and knowledge collectively produced over millennia).

they come AFTER the creation of knowledge that is the product of the uncertainty inherent in those relationships, the fact that we come to KNOW because we realise we don’t know, or see things as new, or come to KNOW what was formerly FELT.

they come AFTER we contemplate the WHY.  why is this (degree, topic, writing, etc.) of value to THIS PERSON in the fulness of their living.  all else is simply the games we play or are inclined to play in the context of ‘globalisation of higher education’.  we know that the GPA will not change the basic discriminatory structure of global higher education.

“Every day, priests minutely examine the Law

And endlessly chant complicated sutras.

Before doing that, though, they should learn

How to read the love letters sent by the wind and rain,

    the snow and moon. 

Ikkyu, “Rain, the Snow, and Moon

before we get caught up in how best to grade we should consider how we read the love letters!

feeling the pressure

marking

the pressure is on and i am definitely feeling it.

i am taking a short break to gather myself before i get back to my work.  this ‘work’ comprises marking draft Masters dissertations, which follows immediately on marking module assignments and what feels like a mountain of second marking. there is nothing remarkable about this.  its bread and butter stuff as far as academic life goes.

and, to be honest, its what i actually enjoy (much of the time). TEACHING is very much at the core of my scholarly or academic identity. the interactions between students and myself, the mutual, though differentiated, engagement with knowledge, ideas, thoughts. i am excited by that space in the interactions between students, teacher, knowledge, knowledge communities where LEARNING happens.  not the learning captured by matrices, student satisfaction surveys, end of module reports, etc. i mean those moments when it, whatever it is, becomes clear, or new in some way. the ‘knowing’ it is new or clear may still be inchoate, but it is there, a pleasant kind of troubling, almost like an itch at the base of the skull.  often, this learning makes you smile. and it may come days, weeks, months, even years after that interaction.

so, what is getting me down enough to want to write about it?

is it the institutional pressure to deliver the marking on time – that ‘time’ determined not by pedagogic purpose but administrative necessity? yes, but not just that.  the exam board looms and i still have a lot to do.  there is much, potentially, at stake here.  yes, there is my reputation to think of.  i don’t want to be thought of as the awkward, or slow colleague. of course, i suffer from that continual desire to be ‘liked’, to be seen as the ‘good’ colleague.  but actually, i had let go of much of that baggage – i had to.  i do take collegiality and professionalism seriously.  collegiality, a word banded about by academics, is a scarce commodity in academic life, and probably always has been.  teaching, including in higher education, is often an intensely private matter, a matter between you and your students. you don’t actually want any colleagues seeing how you teach, or how you mark, or how you supervise.  its bad enough that we are required to share what we write through academic publishing. collegiality can be code for ‘leave me alone’.  ‘professionalism’ can act in the same way.  for me, though, they denote responsibility.  i have a responsibility towards my colleagues.  i might believe the academic horse is being wagged by the bureaucratic tale, but i have colleagues who are invested in these procedures and time tables.  that is their job.  they don’t get to sit at 8.58 am in their kitchen listening to the birds outside and fresh coffee brewing on the stove while they ‘work’.  no, they have to be IN THE OFFICE, AT the desk, and ORGANISING the detail of the exam board.  i have a responsibility.

i have a responsibility towards the students.  there will be many reasons why they do these programmes of study, and those reasons often change over time.  but i feel a responsibility to do my work on time.  if i don’t, i can rehearse all the ‘pedagogic necessity’ stuff all i want, i do not have the responsibility to dump anxiety on the students.  i have a duty of care, as it were.

so, the pressure is on.  the clock ticks.

but there is an added pressure here. two added pressure points.

  1. this is the ‘second arrow’ syndrome. in Buddhism there is a teaching story that goes something like this: i feel under pressure to get my marking done, but i know that i could easily have sorted this earlier.  there were days when i didn’t attend fully to what was needed, i diverted myself onto other tasks, or just plain and simply lost track of the examination clock.  i COULD have avoided the pressure i now feel.  that is the first arrow. that is hard enough to bear.  but it is the ‘second arrow’ that hurts most. this arrow is the critical one, and i mean ‘critical’ in all of its nasty judgemental sense.  the internal narrative turns up the volume and shouts: AGAIN?  haven’t you been in this situation, this exact same situation before?  don’t you learn anything?  you are a FRAUD. you are not a proper teacher at all.  do us all a favour and just GO.  the second arrow.  the most painful arrow that both pushes the first deeper into the wound and twists away causing immense agony.  the fact that i have been battling the flu for two weeks and that some days i can hardly eat or drink seems lost in this self-critical excoriation. 
  2. the other ‘pressure’ is more philosophical.  as i sit and comment on these students’ work Ronald Pelias’s words in ‘Methodology of the Heart’ keep coming back to me.  his commentary on how, as academics, we live and breath evaluation – constantly.  we are judge (am i a reliable colleague who can get his marking in on time?), but we judge.  i sit judging these students, with the knowledge that my words, my comments in the text, my annoyance that basic grammatical errors are still present in the FINAL draft before submission, that my grading, could really hurt somebody.  but should that worry me?  isn’t there a higher ideal here, of KNOWLEDGE? the fact that these students may feel put out by my comments should not deter me from acting as a gatekeeper to STANDARDS.  but, BUT, am i really so confident about this thing called knowledge?  am i so confident about standards?  this comes home most starkly for me when i am working with students from across the globe.  when ‘marking’ a dissertation from a student located in the Caribbean what does ‘standard English’ mean?  do i dismiss the ACTUAL language of the students that is perfectly capable of communicating meaning and insist on the institutionally powerful ‘standard’ against which they will be judged by the academy?  of course, i HAVE  to dismiss, and cajole, and nudge, because they WILL be judged against the ‘standard’ of the former imperial centre. perhaps that partly lies behind my desire to find a different kind of academic life.  

so, i will get back to the marking.  i will fend off those second arrows.  i will, for the moment, bracket my philosophical doubts, i will make a cup of coffee and get on with the task in hand.  BUT – i won’t be taking it so seriously.  i know its a game.  maybe my job, in this instance, is to let my students in on the game and help them play it successfully without buying into it.