Friday, 31 May 2013

Reflections on teaching practice - the X Factor

So, Rate My Professor has hit the UK as As I type this I am rated number 7 out of all lecturers in the UK (from a whole, single vote). The launch of this led to an interesting debate on twitter yesterday about this and similar schemes, particularly of the "Teaching and Learning Oscars" sort that students' unions run. All of my academic colleagues in HE vehemently opposed such schemes on ideological grounds, but I wanted to do a little bit more reflection on here.

Check your privilege

The current twitter-storm of the liberal-left is around checking your privilege, so I thought I'd start here. Myself and my colleagues do extraordinarily well in this sort of thing. First of all, I personally have won one of our own Student Teaching and Learning Oscars last year. I cried when I received the email I was so touched. When an email was sent around the school with this years' winners of the same award I quickly sent emails to both winners congratulating them. I also know that because I'm young and enthusiastic students like me as they can empathise with me more. They've told me this and I feel quite uncomfortable about it.

We are also the best planning school in the UK according to the NSS. We were incredibly proud of this. The year before I started we were bottom of the NSS and have worked very hard to improve our feedback and also ensure that we get very high response rates from our students. We value all feedback, not just the positive.

Is this all a talent contest?

Now I've checked my privilege I want to consider whether this is all a talent contest. At it's worst it can be. One of the most horrible things about ratemyprofessor is staff are also rated on their "hotness" which is despicable. This is particularly the case given the large amount of evidence that women lecturers more commonly receive feedback based on their looks or what they are wearing (a close friend got class feedback saying she should sit more properly). This is also ageist.

Like all early career lecturers in the UK I had to take part in formal training on being a teacher - a Postgraduate Certificate in Academic Practice (which I have just passed!). In many ways this panders to the idea of lecturing as a talent show and I reflected on this in my first assignment. If these forms of feedback are used badly then they are part of the governmentalities of the neoliberal multiversity that privileges the consumerism of students over pedagogical good practice and academic rigour.

But reflecting on my own experience as a student, bad teaching does happen. I did my undergraduate degree at Cambridge in history where lectures were fairly optional (many of my peers prided themselves on never having attended a lecture and still getting a first). If a lecturer was bad you quickly stopped going - I recall one lecturer who basically read out his book that had been published in 1983 and had been absolutely superseded by research since. Another lecturer, on the English agricultural revolution, was very old school - still used OHPs in 2002 - but was very engaging and interesting. At the end of term when the half dozen of us who had stuck with him for the eight weeks filled in our feedback forms he commented that this happened every year - he got fantastic feedback, but tiny classes by the end of term. He could never ask those who didn't attend why they stopped attending.

For me, the important thing is how feedback is garnered and then how it is used. This is where I think our Students' Union get it spot on. From what I understand, they were one of the first SU's to run such a scheme. First of all the categories that they ask for feedback in are constructive and useful, things like "Thinkers Award" and "Most Challenging Lecturer". You're not going to win one of these because you spoon feed your students and then give them all As. Secondly, students don't just tick boxes or click on Likert scales, they actually have to write a reason why they are nominating staff. Thirdly, there is a very large wooden plaque by the main entrance to the University where winners names are painted each year - the University is very proud of its innovative and engaging teaching and learning. Finally, all staff who are nominated at all receive the anonymous text of those nominations whether they win or not. That day is a wonderful day to be on campus as all teaching staff have a smile on their faces.

This is far better even than the formal feedback systems that my uni has in place - these are Likert scales and comment boxes, with questions framed in such a way that all you ever get is the most negative comments. A further aspect of this trend in HE is how your institution then responds to poor feedback. The response has to be constructive and supportive, with a whole teaching team helping teaching staff not just leaving them in the lurch wondering where they went wrong. And this includes being assertive and saying the students have got it wrong.

The marketisation of HE globally is appalling and the consumerism that is sites like Rate Your Lecturer and Unistats encourage is wrong. However, we cannot discount all feedback, or all schemes like Teaching and Learning Oscars. I mark harshly (as my external examiners have told me) and I set challenging coursework and exams and get fantastic emails from students commenting on how much they have been challenged, intellectually stretched and engaged by my teaching, either in person or by distance-learning. I value the feedback I get and I'm also pleased that we run our Teaching and Learning Oscars in such a positive way that empower students in their learning and encourages innovation.

To go back to one of the texts that has inspired me most in my teaching practice, Teaching as a Subversive Activity, what we need in all this is crap detection. Rate your lecturer is crap and I shan't be trying to maintain my seventh place in the rankings. Students can also be told when feedback systems like this are crap, but also through feedback from you as a teacher begin to engage critically with them and give constructive feedback themselves. And jeez-oh was the feedback I got in my mid-semester stop-start-continue exercise hard to deal with! 

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