Teaching contradictions

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.





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