Blank slate thinking

It seems we’ve made the decision to standardise our first year teaching mode to two hours of content delivery, with one hour weekly for class discussion.  At the moment, more than half teach in this way, but some disciplines offer shorter lectures and longer discussion.  It’s a classic bit of historical untidiness, like an uneven streetscape in an area destined for gentrification. Straightening this out will make our individual workloads easier to calibrate, and in turn this will make everything fairer.

Supporters of this plan have rallied to the flag of workload equity, which is a very reasonable standard. Critics have pointed out that the real incentive is to manage the casual teaching budget, which is also spot on. Bored bystanders are struck, as usual, by the fact that one of the least engaging conversations in any university is this tired showdown between resource management and fair treatment. The minutiae of workload models, allocations, compensations, buyouts, EFTS, are up there with key performance indicators, brand management and the feedback loop. If you’re not directly involved, extended discussion of any of these are likely to make you check your watch discreetly and wonder about faking an urgent phone call.

But I’m a bit more interested in what this decision says about a vision for quality as Australia both expands participation nationally, and at the same time opens up more internal competition.  As it gets easier for students to vote with their feet, what will guide their choices?  Will it be the bling of a degree with pedigree, as the sandstone universities hope, or the reputation that an institution has for innovation, smart technology, work integrated learning, business relevance, community engagement, internationalisation? What part will our reputation for teaching quality play in their thinking, and what part will their entry-level ability and knowledge play in our planning?

Our current tactic suggests that we’re planning to meet this challenge with a stronger emphasis on content delivery than engagement. First of all, longer lecture times means we’ll have a bigger pipe, and we’ll put more stuff down it. Secondly, more students will be taught by academics with a very high individual student load, and this will continue to increase pressure on the nature and timeliness of student feedback and the frequency of student-staff consultation, both of which are conventional engagement measures.  There’s no doubt that some of our colleagues already manage this model well, but otherwise, it’s not quite so obvious how quality has played a part in this decision.

A colleague came to my office yesterday to express his dismay at the expectation that he will even be able to remember the names of his students as overall numbers rise. If he doesn’t know who they are, he reasons, how can he convince them that he’s interested in what they each learn from him?

He knows, and I know, that this response falls directly into the category of “special pleading” that change management is already set up to dismiss. When change management takes on a religious tone, and especially when the discussion pivots around some concept of “equity”, then resistance is evidence of the virtue of the plan.  This is really why atheists don’t stop to talk to evangelists in the street, because we know that as non-believers we embody proof of concept: our scepticism is their evidence that God exists. Checkmate.

The thing is, we’re not resistant to change, or workshy, or naive about the budget, or precious about needing some kind of Oxford tutorial system with two students and a sherry decanter around the collected works of someone or other. We’re already used to lecturing to large numbers, and this is fine with us, even if we get a bit shouty around the 400 mark. And we’re also already teaching to the largest class sizes that OH&S constraints will allow.

It’s just that there’s a human limit to our capacity to engage meaningfully and conscientiously with others, to convert them from strangers to people we recognise in the corridor, and my colleague is right: this is related in very practical ways to the number of names we can learn at one go.

So why are universities bad at opening up to a bigger conversation about more creative options to teach large numbers well?

Frankly, I don’t think academics are the ones putting this in the too-hard basket. We’d really welcome the time for a substantial and thoughtful consideration of the cargo-loads of research on student engagement, attrition, retention, aspiration, learning styles, work-life balance, presenteeism and social media use. We’re also keen to get to grips with our budget, and to be better informed about what activities are valued in higher education funding models.

And we’re even ready to ask: what if it’s time to rethink the logic of disciplines as the primary instrument for parcelling out casual and permanent teaching resources? Maybe we can’t appreciate what university is like for our students, and we can’t develop sustainable, innovative high quality teaching practices that use limited resources wisely, while we’re locked into curriculum models and curriculum review processes that treat each discipline as a self-contained unit exclusively responsible for the university experience of its own students.

Steven Schwartz is asking how we would design the Australian university of the future, if we had a blank slate now, and one of the questions he’s asking is this:

So here’s a thought experiment: If you were in charge of the higher education budget of China or India (or Australia) and you had the resources to build a university from scratch, how would it differ from today’s typical Australian university?

Would it have faculties, departments, disciplines, and divisions?

These questions seem to me as sensible as any of the remedies I’m seeing to problems I’m not expected to understand, and I’d really welcome the chance to have the conversation.

That’s all I’m saying.

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