Opinion Pendulum swings back to teaching

Society’s views on teaching have ebbed and flowed – but now the tide is turning, writes Merlin Crossley.


The School of Athens. Vatican Museum. Photo: Shutterstock

OPINION: Most of us enjoy mentoring staff and postgraduate students – until the really tough questions come up.

The one I keep getting is not new but it is becoming more urgent: “Am I competitive enough to secure a continuing academic position?”

I used to answer this in terms of grants and fellowships. In the experimental disciplines, and to some extent in others too, if you are able to secure funding repeatedly then you also will attract students and collaborators, your productivity will grow and you will be supported by university managers, who are unpredictable at the best of times but do tend to like to build on success.

The problem is that research funding rates have fallen to historic lows.

More alarming still, in some schemes junior researchers seem to be increasingly missing out.

So I have been cautious about recommending that anyone other than my most determined and talented junior colleagues and students set their hearts on a career in research. And, to be honest, I’ve always said that it’s tough but the numbers I’m seeing now suggest it is tougher than ever.

Nevertheless, I am not at all negative about academe.

Research is becoming more competitive only because more researchers are in the game. Overall, universities are not shrinking. Education is not a declining industry. So I am encouraging those who seem to have teaching in their DNA to focus their efforts on developing and showcasing their aptitude for teaching.

Society’s views on teaching have ebbed and flowed.

Socrates, Confucius and Buddha were great teachers.

Gradually great researchers became more important than great teachers and the visibility of not only Nobel prizes but also citation databases, impact factors, h-indices and international league tables based overwhelming on hard research metrics cemented, for a while, the supremacy of research in the minds of university managers.

But now the tide is turning.

There have been new developments.

First, just as electronic databases meant that citations were easier to record, electronic communication has meant that student experience indicators are inescapable. On top of this, the fact governments across the globe are struggling to pay for education and are pushing the costs on to students, means these indicators cannot be ignored.

More important, perhaps, technology provides more opportunities for teachers to try new things, to prove they work and to showcase them to peer reviewers.

In the film Dead Poets Society only his students appreciated the teacher played by Robin Williams. Now that we have the internet the whole world can see good teachers in action and peer reviewers can assess the teaching from a professional perspective. Peer reviewing of teaching always has been good in theory, now it is much easier in practice.

I believe technology changes the world.

Just as the advent of theatres brought us Shakespeare, the rise of the printed book gave us the likes of Jane Austen, television brought us David Attenborough and the internet has delivered Salman Khan. There will be many more to come in many guises.

Some people despise YouTube hits as a crude measure of quality. The digital age will provide a digital footprint where the contributions of good teaching will be unmissable.

Some of this will be the teaching itself but there are also opportunities to do new research into the effectiveness of teaching on scales and with validity in design that is hitherto unprecedented.

There also will be more opportunities to work in teams to deliver teaching. It is not often said but working in groups is one of the best things about being a lab scientist. Teaching teams will be fun, too.

And there will be jobs. The student market will continue to expand because education is the only way up for most of the world’s population.

So I am encouraging some of my colleagues to follow their dreams and consider a career in university teaching. It will be hard work and there will be risks but, depending on one’s talents, the risks of pursuing a research career or even taking a combined research and teaching position may be even greater.

I am convinced that proper career structures will emerge and in the not-too-distant future universities will compete to poach celebrated teaching staff from one another and invest in them to deliver even more, just as we vie now to attract the top researchers.

Ultimately I hope we’ll reach an equilibrium where both teaching and research are properly respected and all academics can find the balance of teaching and research that works for them and their students.

Merlin Crossley is Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Education) at UNSW.

This opinion piece was first published in The Australian.