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As this is my 20th year of teaching in higher education (HE), it seems appropriate to reflect on what if anything I might have learned from the experience.  Normally I avoid writing about teaching (my own as well as others) because it is something that I just ‘do’, but given the current and likely future state of British HE, I feel inclined to indulge myself just this once.

My indulgence is prompted by the growing pressures to deliver university teaching in standardised ways.  This is not to suggest that the content is standard, but increasingly the mode of delivery is expected to follow highly prescriptive rules.  This has been coming for some time, but has taken on a much greater impetus recently because of the unprecedented hike in fees for students in most English universities – £9,000 a year – and an increasingly intrusive audit regime (the Quality Assurance Agency in the UK).

With the rise in fees a narrative has developed about what students should expect from their university teaching.  Importantly, this narrative tends to come from the government and the media in the name of students, rather than from students themselves.  This is understandable, perhaps: if you’ve never experienced university, how would you know what good teaching was?  But it also means that the debate about what we, as degree-level educators ought to be doing, is being informed – dictated, perhaps – by groups with political agendas and very little actual experience of such teaching.

Because of the centrality of the fees regime to the process, much of it revolves around issues of ‘value for money’.  Again this is perhaps to be expected, but it results in some apparently ‘logical’ conclusions being drawn about how teaching should be delivered which are more about quantity than quality or, worse, that deliberately or otherwise confuse quantity for quality.  This manifests itself in several ways.  Most recently, attention has been drawn, particularly in the right-wing press, to the issue of contact hours.  Effective teaching, the story goes, must involve lots of direct contact between faculty and students.  With many degree courses having, or appearing to have, quite low contact hours this is taken as evidence that universities, or, at least, their bolshie Faculty, shirking their responsibility to students.  In addition, the use by many university departments of ‘associate tutors’ of one kind or another – PhD students, teaching assistants, teaching fellows, temporary contract teaching staff, etc. – is deemed to be more evidence that universities are selling students short.  They advertise themselves using their shiny research staff, but these people do very little of the actual teaching.  Finally teaching is expected to be highly systematised and very busy.  Systematised refers to highly worked up curricula, targeted assessments with clear links to Intended Learning Outcomes (ILOs) and clearly-stated criteria for success or failure.  Busy refers to the use of virtual learning environments, extensive reading lists, reading packs, handouts, Powerpoint slides, audio and/or video recordings of lectures and lots of other ‘stuff,’ all intended to make the learning experience as rich (some would say, foolproof) as possible.

Now, in many ways all this seems highly logical, obvious even.  If I’m lumbering myself with as much as £140,000 of debt (once fees, subsistence loans and interest payments are factored in) I want to be sure I’m getting my money’s worth.  Fair enough.  It also has to be said – and here I am not going to make myself very popular – that universities have tended to neglect teaching relative to research.  This is, however, a consequence of many years of successive government policies favouring research outcomes over student experience.  That institutions have internalised this to a very high degree can be seen in their hiring and promotion policies: no-one gets hired into a ‘research intensive’ university, or gets promoted, on the basis of teaching alone.  Indeed in most cases an ability to teach is simply assumed; hiring and promotions processes focusing almost exclusively on publication and grant-capture.  This has not changed, despite the growing debate around teaching. So perhaps there is a flicker of fire amidst all the smoke currently wafting around the issue of teaching, and we’d be arrogant in the extreme not to recognise that.

However, the idea that more systematic and busier teaching is better teaching is false.  It can be, and is, highly appropriate for some subjects, but whilst some of it may be necessary it most certainly is not sufficient.  The real danger of the rapid absorption and normalisation of the ‘systemic/busy’ teaching agenda is that it suppresses different ways of teaching that are as, if not more, effective for students.  As a consequence HE teaching is in danger of becoming increasingly standardised and, ironically, more and more removes the student themselves from the process.

I say this with some confidence partly because of 20 years standing in lecture theatres but more precisely because of a particular course I ran over several with third year undergraduates.  This course does not currently run (though I may try to reinstate it to see if I can get away with it), but while it did it demonstrated precisely the opposite of the ‘logic’ of the ‘busy-is-good’ agenda.

First, the course was entirely open.  It was called ‘Spatialities of the Contemporary State’ which hints quite vaguely at geography (it was taught in a Geography department) but if you think about it actually can mean pretty much anything.  This was entirely deliberate.  The whole ethos of the course was to place the students’ own experience and knowledge at the forefront, and because that was going to be particular to the individual it was impossible to prescribe what it would be.  They were asked to think about their relationship to the state, but that would have emerged anyway so it was hardly a restriction – as the students demonstrated time and again.

Second, the students were given almost nothing by way of course materials.  The course outline consisted of ten words – one for each 2-hour weekly session.  These alluded to key themes – borders, piracy, territory, body, money, exclusion, etc. – but were intended to be interpreted very freely and were, in any case, negotiable.  ‘Body’ for example, was added one year at the behest of the students because it was an issue we kept encountering that they wanted to explore in greater detail.  Beyond the ten words the course had no written structure and little or nothing in the way of reading lists (some texts were suggested, but never made compulsory).

Third, the classroom sessions were only minimally structured and deliberately spontaneous.  Each session would begin with the day’s newspaper which we’d scour for relevant and/or interesting stories that would then be discussed.  After half an hour or so of that – everyone being warmed up – we’d segue into the theme/word of the day.  This involved me delivering an improvised lecture/seminar with the students chipping in as and when they felt it appropriate.  Their interventions increased as the course progressed: sessions becoming more and more intense as it went on.  All of this was written up by me – and the students occasionally – on a whiteboard with ideas, concepts, dates and whatever else came up being linked with squiggly lines and arrows.  Nothing was kept permanently – no handouts, for example, and no record of the whiteboard – because the purpose was to inspire students’ personal responses, not to have them ‘learn’ anything I might know.  ‘Facts’, insofar as there were any, were usually pretty vague, greater emphasis being placed on the unfolding narrative than the stops on the way.  This was also in recognition that in the world of the smartphone and Wikipedia, students could, and did, immediately check what was being said in the room.  And they were only too happy to correct me when I got my facts wrong (often).

The classroom sessions were based on a bargain I struck with the students at the start of the course.  They would bring to the room their own life experiences and knowledge and anything else they felt appropriate from whatever source.  I would bring 30-odd years of reading across several different disciplines.  Both sides would bring enthusiasm and a willingness to muck in.  We’d put all this together and see what came out.  What I did not tell them was that I made things hard for myself by doing absolutely no preparation for each session – it really had to be spontaneous.

Fourth, the assessment was almost entirely open.  It consisted of an 80-page blank book given the students at the start of the course.  Into this they were invited to put whatever they thought was relevant – literally anything.  In many cases this would start off being notes from the classroom sessions, but quickly developed in all sorts of unexpected directions as they realised both that I was entirely serious about ‘anything goes’ and that they had all sorts of things to say.  Some wrote diaries, some reflected on personal (sometimes highly personal) histories, some went over material again and again building into very deep analysis of topics or ideas.  Each one was completely unique.  The only restriction I placed on these ‘workbooks’ was that after a few weeks they should concentrate on one particular topic and work that up in more detail.  That said, I placed no restrictions on what the topic should be and stipulated that it should NOT be written up as a formal essay.  It was expected to be messy, iterative and individual.

This mode of assessment was the one aspect of the course that made me nervous, because I had deliberately relinquished any control over it.  This, and the inevitably idiosyncratic way they went about it, meant that I could not give them ‘grade descriptors’ as guidance to success or failure.  I couldn’t even tell them much about how to do it.  In the end I told them that it would be graded on vague things like ‘enthusiasm’, ‘engagement’ and ‘depth’ in the hope that they’d get what I meant.  I need not have worried.  By the final year that I ran this course students were handing in as many as three workbooks, each stuffed with extraordinary material.  In the space of a few weeks people that had previously been rather passive and disconnected were delivering the sort of quantity and quality of material one would struggle to get a PhD student to produce after three years.  Several, indeed, could have been written up as PhDs with no additional research required.  Not all were that good, obviously, but although I was more than prepared to, I never failed any of the students – I simply did not have to.  In the vast majority of cases they performed at a much higher level than their normal profiles across their degrees suggested.  This was not, I should add because of over-generous marking by me – all of this was double-checked by colleagues, some of whom, from time to time, were both sceptical or hostile to the course (or just to me).  The only changes that were ever made to marks were to raise them.  This was the only course I have taught in my 20 years where I gave 100% for a piece of assessed work – an astonishingly good piece of research that I could never have expected in so short a time and which, in all honesty, I could not have done myself.  As an added bonus, because the workbooks were handwritten, there were no instances of plagiarism.

What to conclude from this?

I am not suggesting that this is the ‘right’ way to teach everything – clearly this is not the case.  For one thing, the upper limit of a class was about 30 – not always possible in these days of huge student cohorts.  I am suggesting, however, that in overlarding courses with structure, content, contact-time and all the other paraphernalia of ‘value-for-money’, we are in danger of depriving students of learning experiences that cannot be encoded in curricula or ILOs.  Many of the students who took the course described above told me afterwards that they had come to university in the first place expecting to get this kind of experience.  However, this was the only course they’d had in three years where they felt that their own knowledge and opinions were properly valued and that they were fully engaged in a creative learning process.  A few even described it as ‘life-changing’ and from the work they submitted this was clearly the case.  I am extremely proud of that – the more so because the positive outcomes were down the students’ creativity and energy, not my prescription.

So, perhaps we need to push back against the normalised mode of teaching that is increasingly being forced upon us.  However it is delivered, teaching is a dialogue between the teacher and the taught.  If we allow that dialogue to become too one-sided – heavily structured, prescribed and controlled – then what we end up with is a flattened pastiche of teaching entirely dominated by the voice of the teacher and the interests of the institution.  The ultimate paradox of this is that, in the name of value-for-money for the student, it is the fee-paying student and their individual voice that is systematically excluded from the process.  If I was paying £9,000 a year for my ‘higher’ education, I wouldn’t be too happy about that.

[This rant was in part inspired by a request for information about the course described above from a Rutgers PhD student, John Legrid.  I am very grateful to him for prompting me to write this.]