Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Fault line on the nexus of my 'day job' and my academic life

For the past 27 years, after leaving university first time round, I've worked in journalism and latterly, organisational communication. For the past five years I've been back in academia; collecting an MA and working towards a PhD. For the past two I've been teaching in a university history department - part-time and on a short contract basis. This year in particular, my module has proved popular. The feedback has been good and students have become very engaged in the subject.

I've been able to bring all my experience of corporate communications to bear on designing and delivering my lectures and seminars. There's a huge parallel with the kind of training I've done for years in industry and the facilitation work I've done with corporate and industry leaders over the last decade.

It helps too that I'm the father to teenagers not far short in age of the young adults I've been teaching. I'm beginning to understand their on-line linked up world where the old style of lecturing from my first university experience simply wouldn't cut it any more.

So, my lectures are bracketed with music chosen to have some relevance to the topic. I use You Tube and other video sources extensively to bring to life the people and events we're covering. Much of the seminar work is based around primary sources - and generally I prefer the students to find and introduce at least some of those sources.

It's a first year group, and as well as getting a good grounding in the subject, I want them to get enjoyment from our Thursday afternoons together and come out feeling they want to learn more - to scrape beneath the surface view. I don't claim that my sessions cover all the bases; I don't claim that they give more than a partial view - and at times I'll deliberately go out on an extreme to drive home a point. But I want the students to leave the lecture room sufficiently engaged with the subject to go and find out more: to read deeply and get the full story - if only to disprove the line I've taken.

In the UK system of little contact time and much space left for private study, it's all I can do. I'm not yet a great teacher and still have a huge amount to learn. But finally, I think I've found my metier. This student engagement in subjects I'm passionate about is what I do best.

My approach in attempting to connect the students to the subject matter through some side-on angles isn't revolutionary - indeed I'm aping the best of my experience through my Masters. Where I am perhaps hard wired slightly differently is in bringing my experience of the world beyond academia to bear from lecture one term one in making students think beyond their three or four years of academic study to the harsh working world that will be waiting for them in a couple of years' time.

I want them to immerse themselves in their subject: to begin to think as historians and to move beyond the narrative I can share with them to question why things turned out as they did. But equally, I want to help them develop good habits: to turn up on time; to participate in class; to be generous in sharing views; to accept and deal with constructive criticism; to organise their thoughts cogently and present them coherently, on time and within the expected standards. That may sound like a no-brainer, but it's not the case for a number of reasons.

On the student side, they've come through a school system designed to enable them to get the right grades in exams. That means spoon-fed learning, narrow-cast around fulfilling exam criteria. Having only 10 hours contact time with staff at university per week; being asked to research subjects without a feeding spoon; and simply being away from home for the first time is perhaps a bigger ask of students than ever before.

And on the staff side, frankly the system has become too lax and simply doesn't demand sufficient discipline from students. We don't make lectures and seminars compulsory and equally don't have enough support in place to help those sinking students learn to swim. The latter point comes in part from a lack of funding; the former is merely a hangover from more freewheeling liberal approaches that first permeated campuses a generation ago. Yes, we have to respect that our students are adults who choose to be on our course. But my view is that many don't arrive from school with sufficient structure in place to make the right decisions on their own. At first year level, I'd make contact time compulsory. It builds good practice that won't just carry through their study time, but will be invaluable in landing and keeping a job after graduation.

It's at this point that my 'day job' and academic life collides most. For over a year I've been working on Adecco's Unlocking Britain's Potential initiative. This is looking at why Britain's workforce isn't as effective as it could be - and one of the key findings is that young workers simply aren't ready for the world of work, whether they emerge from education at 16, 18 or in the early 20s. Of course, it's a huge generalisation, but the majority of the employers I spoke to during the research spoke about the issues they have both with managing young people's expectations (the 'entitled' generation was a recurring theme), and instilling the discipline and loyalty necessary for that young person to be a productive and contributing member of the organisation.

Industry blames the education system for not producing the 'finished work-ready goods', while the education sector bemoans the lack of industry support - from shaping curricula to offering the work placements through education that will open young people's eyes to the reality of work. They're both right, and I hope UBP will help cement some of the links that are clearly lacking.

For me though, one of the most disconcerting aspects of the past two years has been the disconnect in what academia is, and should be, about. For me, teaching the next generation and opening their minds so that they can make the bridge into a career is the vital aspect. I put everything of myself into that part of university life - yet it actually counts for nothing on my PhD.

While internal student satisfaction and, increasingly the National Student Survey play a part in grading the department and attracting students, our funding is based on the quality of published research - written by academics for academics and largely read by three old men and a dog. Teaching is secondary and lecturers are recruited into the department on the basis of the the funding their research will attract. There's a fundamental dichotomy here. True, some great researchers are also great teachers but it's by no means always the case. At the moment, great teaching doesn't attract funding and so there's little incentive for departments to recruit staff members who will make the student experience truly memorable. If it happens now, it's by luck not judgement.

The next generation is not attracted to study in our institutions by the scholarly articles we publish (ok, I've only published one...and a review) but will increasingly be attracted by the electronic word-of-mouth of social media - the views of current students - and by tracking where our graduates end up in their working lives. We are not an end in ourselves. For the next generation of students, employability will be far more a pressing reason to choose or reject a department than the research interests of the faculty.

So where am I heading with this? Well, I'm beginning to draw my conclusions. In brief, they are:

  •  Providing funding to departments only on the basis of research devalues the teaching experience and is unsustainable in a new era of growing student choice
  • Students want good teaching and more informed contact time - most don't give a toss about the department's reputation for scholarly research
  • The university experience has to add another layer: subject specialist excellence has to remain at the forefront, but especially in non-vocational subjects, there needs to be a far greater emphasis on supporting students across the transition from school to university and then from university into work
  • Industry/university partnerships are not a dirty concept - they will become ever-more essential and need to break out of the narrow confines of law firm - law department and 'big four' - business school and embrace all departments and all types of industrial and commercial organisation
  • Teaching experience and skill should be a measured and rewarded aspect of PhD study for any researcher contemplating an academic career 
  • We need to instill greater discipline in students at university level - not to do so is bad for everyone.
As liberal in thought and voting practice, my views surprise even me. Cripes, I'll be advocating 'Victorian Values' next....

Dear Diary - I'm back

So, I entirely failed to keep up my daily diary covering my later days in Abilene and the return to the UK....which all happened over a fortnight ago.

The main reason was, as has happened on previous research trips, the final couple of days assumed a new level of intensity. I had more specific information to find - and indeed found much of what I was looking for.

Suddenly seven hours in an archive wasn't enough, and my evenings were spent reading around my subject and trying to pull all my thoughts into order.

I headed home on a high - only to have my wings filled with flak at the Brunel Research Presentation event on my return.

My head was still filled with the connections from Bikini Atoll through the U2 and Corona to NASA - but I didn't articulate those linkages particularly well, and was rather forensically pulled apart by the great and good of my department.

I'm confident the hypothesis works and that I have the evidence to support it. The next few months will be a matter of unpicking all that evidence from the documents i collected and beginning to develop a coherent narrative.