Why is didactics (un)important at colleges and universities?

The pressure on publications at the expense of didactics, grants orientation, unmotivated students, the  level of professors’ skills and, above all, red tape – these are the weaknesses of the system of higher education, which in many cases lower the level of teaching.

In the discussions on the condition of higher education in Poland, we can hear voices of disappointment with the way colleges or universities function. Both students and scientists are critical. The representatives of academic world notice that their schools have entered into a managerialism phase and the word “effectiveness” has become a key word in this new world. Students accuse their schools of not preparing them adequately for the requirements of contemporary labour market, of conducting boring lectures and classes, and the promoters of their thesis of not having time for them. On the other hand, lecturers claim that students show little engagement, are lazy and undisciplined (hence there are so many plagiarisms). The list of objections towards higher education is getting longer each year. Some people recollect with fondness old times when the balance between research and teaching was maintained at universities, the master-student relation was fostered, students were motivated, honest and diligent. However, it is worth asking ourselves a question if it is not solely a myth; maybe such times actually did not exist. In the past, universities were also blamed for poor functioning and people wanted changes. Contemporary criticism is needed because we notice the elements of the system which require improvement. But it is worth referring to the Western debate (especially American and British) on managerialism and commercialisation of higher education. What shocks us today in Poland has sparked controversy in the USA in the mid ‘80s and in the early ‘90s. The Polish system, according to the logic of globalisation and Americanisation, adopts solutions which dominate in the Western world; that is why we should draw conclusions from these experiences. Unfortunately, it seems that we copy certain solutions, but the solutions which turned out to be effective (or not) in the USA do not necessary have to succeed in Poland. Changes introduced in the higher educational system are systemic and global. The researchers of the subject interested in educational globalisation indicate that international corporations expect universities to educate certain human capital. But in this globalised and commercialised reality of higher education, lecturers are accused of forgetting about the most important function – educating students. Analysing the debate on the condition of higher education in the USA, Great Britain and lately also in Poland, we can find some possible answers.

The first answer: “publish or perish!”

In the mid ‘80s in the USA, a slogan “publish or perish” started to be popular and soon became an ideology. The last few years show such a tendency also in Poland. We should not be surprised that scientists (especially the ones at the beginning of their academic career) feel bigger and bigger pressure to publish as much as possible in the shortest period of time. Of course, the number of publications is not of such a big importance as the number of points which are awarded for them. In other words, the number of points decides about their opportunities and chances to be promoted. Universities benefit from academic achievements of certain employees because the more research, patents, discoveries and scientific papers of a certain employee, the better results a university obtains. As a consequence, academic teachers prefer to (or have to) devote more time for carrying out research and publishing its outcomes than for didactic activity. As a result, American colleges and universities decided to separate research and didactic function, which used to be inseparable. Such an attitude has been criticised because its opponents claim that one cannot be a good academic teacher without carrying out research, and carrying out research requires the interaction with students during classes. That is why many people demand to keep the rule of equality between research and teaching. But it is getting more and more difficult to keep this rule. Scientists who concentrate mainly on carrying out research may not have time to prepare classes, correct students’ assignments and encourage them to undertake research activity. On the other hand, the ones who get engaged in didactic activity give interesting seminars and have time for students, sacrifice their academic activity very often at the cost of carrying out research. Experts think that the second group (in the age of commercialisation and managerialism of higher education) may find recognition in students’ eyes but the outcomes of their work (often hard work) will not result in university’s financial profits. It seems that the most important challenge for scientific-didactic employees is to reach balance between being research and profit-oriented and being student-oriented. Introducing market mechanisms at colleges and universities has its pros and cons. So far, the will and satisfaction from research and classes, and sometimes prestige, were the only motivation for the representatives of academic world. But for some academic workers prestige and will were not strong enough incentives for work. As a consequence, persons who neither carried out research (did not publish), nor did their best to give good classes (if they did not carry out research, they could not say anything innovative) were employed at colleges or universities. Studies carried out by Robert C. Serow indicate that what scientists appreciate more in their career is the role of research rather than didactic activity. In their opinion, it influences not only the opportunity to be promoted, but also their status and the way they are perceived by other scientists. In other words, the ones who do not carry out research and do not have proper results have smaller chances to be promoted and do not gain respect in the eyes of other members of academic society, or may be even marginalised. But as it was noticed by American researchers – Richard A. Katula and Agnes Doody – at the beginning of the ‘90s publishing is a goal which the majority of academic workers want to achieve, but it is not the only goal and not always the most satisfying one.

The second answer: grantomania

Raising money for research has become one of the most important challenges for contemporary people of science. Since the state is gradually withdrawing from financing science, researchers are forced to look for outside funds for carrying out research. Of course, the ones who deal with the so called practical sciences have bigger chances to raise funds, humanists are in much worse situation. Scientists spend more and more time on writing applications for grants. The ones who receive grants are much more attractive workers for a university. What is more, Derek Bok proves that professors who receive financial support from business and industry publish more articles in reviewed magazines and devote the same time for teaching as their colleagues who do not receive financial support. What is more, the ones who receive grants for research projects can engage their students in them. Nevertheless, raising funds for carrying out research, management connected with the grant and its realisation become bigger priorities than engagement in didactic activity.

The third answer: it is difficult to satisfy a student

Nowadays, academic teachers are often accused of not devoting (enough) time to their students. Moreover, they are also blamed for not engaging students in research activities. There are opinions that students feel isolated, left with their own problems, and the idea of equality between professors and students is a fiction. For sure, many students have been disrespected or treated with arrogance by an academic teacher. And that is why they remembered such a person well. We usually talk about things we do not like and about the wrongs others have done to us. Now, let’s reverse the situation. Why do students come to duty hours, which are organised for them? I have observed that they do it more often to take an exam or get a teacher’s signature (by the way, it is worth noticing that more and more colleges get rid of paper student record books, so in some time students will come for duty hours only to take an outstanding exam or make up for absences). Such a situation when students come to us – academic teachers – to talk about the subject of their thesis or about something connected with classes is rare. Of course, in many cases it is a vicious circle. Students do not come to us because they presume in advance that we will not have time. There is also another possibility – students just do not want to come, do not have time or do not need to consult us. In my “practice” it has happened to me sometimes that a student came to my duty hours, because he or she wanted to consult his or her semester assignment with me. We are teachers; we do not give ready-made answers and solutions. Studying means creating your own conceptions and discussing them. Indeed, if academic teachers are sometimes “closed” to students, then we cannot talk about a free flow of thoughts. But it also works the other way round. If students do not want to get engaged, do not need to extend their knowledge and do only what they are expected to do, they cannot blame academic teachers for not teaching them anything during studies. All academic teachers and students are different. I have observed many students who have a passion and are ready to explore new fields of knowledge, who are engaged, ambitious and hard-working. But there are also students who just want to “get though” their studies and pass exams. And it seems that it has always been like that and will be like that in the future.

It is also worth mentioning that as commercialisation progresses, students are treated like clients, and according to market rules a client has to be satisfied. But nowadays it is getting more and more difficult to satisfy a student-client. More and more colleges and universities signal that knowledge and skills which students can acquire during their studies are solely bonuses to a non-didactic offer. To win clients they offer not only a set of necessary didactic materials but also laptops, USB flash drives, mugs or other presents. It also turns out that grades do not serve a selective function anymore and they are becoming a kind of an award. In the Western literature on the subject, a lot of books are devoted to grades inflation. It is claimed that a good grade will keep a student in the system for as long as possible. There appears an asymmetry because in the past a student strived for a place at university or worked hard to get good grades, and now universities and colleges “fight” for a student awarding them good grades. What is more, students expect “spectacular” actions from their lecturers. A lecture given by a charismatic person who has acting talent and uses modern technology (even if the contents do not require it) is more interesting than content-oriented lectures led monotonously. As a consequence, experts indicate another phenomenon – infantilization of higher education. Academic teachers have to entertain, nurse, reward for progress in learning or punish (but not severely) for insubordination. Independence and responsibility of a student for his or her own learning process is getting more and more uncommon. I do not claim that it is students’ fault, but at the same time I do not claim that academic teachers are completely responsible for it. This is the reality and we have two possibilities – we can either complain about the system in which we function or we can try to change it gradually.

The fourth answer: above all – bureaucracy

Neoliberal changes of the academic world have inevitably led to the situation in which there dominates not only managerialism, but also audit. All external controls, the representatives of which appear at colleges or universities form time to time, brought on – as Frank Fuerdi described it – the times of “drawing up lists”. Scientists are made to deliver a list of publications, participation in conferences, grants, individual achievements, results of educating etc. It inevitably leads to the above mentioned red tape in academic work. What is more, the lists created have to be compliant with a current model to which an instruction is enclosed. The patterns of syllabuses or academic achievements can serve as examples. We should also pay attention to the fact that standardisation of education and bureaucracy makes academic teachers define the effects of educating. In this way, we start not only to write in an unoriginal way, but more often we start to act in this way. In some time students will accuse us of not conducting classes according to the schedule in the syllabus (e.g. when we want to be creative or want to mention a social problem important at that time) or the other way round, students can complain about sticking strictly to educational programme.

Lately, e.g. British scientists have been “made” to gain additional qualifications and to self-improve by participation in different kinds of courses (of course they will have to “account” for them in a special form evaluating the effectiveness of their work).

This trend has been widely criticised, first of all, because the trust in scientists and their abilities to create their own scientific culture has decreased. Secondly, participation in such courses is often solely to complete a list of tasks and it does not necessarily extend scientists’ knowledge or improve their skills.

Experts notice that in this way the representatives of the academic world get “pumped” into the machine of bureaucracy and standardisation. It concerns both academic teachers and students. What we all have to learn is the ability to (co)operate in these new conditions. We should search for such solutions which will not make the system, which we actually create, a trap. But it seems that the most important things are to set each other requirements: masters need to have requirements towards their students, and students towards their masters.

Translation: Anita Stradomska

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