Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Teaching Awards.

Yesterday morning, in the shelter of the Coach-house of Dublin Castle, over a hundred people shook off the rain and gathered to celebrate teaching in higher education. The National Teaching Excellence Awards (coordinated by NAIRTL) are an annual event now and although only 5 people are recipients of the prizes and honours they are indicative of the levels of commitment and enthusiasm that are on display every hour of every day in lecture theatres, tutorial classes and laboratories across the country. The convenient (for some politicians and journalists) myth of 'lazy' academics, droning incoherently as they dream of a life of pure research and ignore their students was never more soundly cast aside than by hearing the voices of the students and peers who had nominated these award winners (and indeed the other candidates in both national and local schemes).

Despite the challenges that Bruce Macfarlane draws attention to in a recent paper on the disaggregation or 'unbundling' of academic practice (to which I referred in my short presentation yesterday) -i.e. the increasing difficulty of succeeding in all three original domains of academic practice (viz, teaching, research and contributions to their community)- many of these recipients and their colleagues are examples of those who are bucking such a trend. Although, this is not to deny that the pressures and the developments that Bruce refers to are very real, nor is it meant to imply that such staff have found it easy to juggle these various roles, after all their working hours are excessive and only achievable because of deep wells of energy and the support of family.

For a more sustainable approach we need to look seriously at expectations of institutions and how they distribute their resources. But more than this, we also need to be clear about the ethos or values on which higher education institutions are based. Are we to be driven inexorably towards the rainbow's end of high international league table positions or take a more realistic perspective and recognise the riches that we already possess? Are the needs of our students, our society and our disciplines best met by subsidising multinational publishing empires with our labour, or spinning the latest grant award as a further step towards the curing of all major illness? Or perhaps there's more to be gained in nourishing what we have, in nurturing our local talent and building a solid, sustainable future, taking pride in a reputation gleaned from teaching of the highest quality, integrated with research and scholarship and with a long term vision.

Well done to all of you, winners and contenders. We know you're doing tremendous work, your students know that and hopefully the policy-makers will come to realise such also.

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