One of my upper year mathematics lecturers was a graduate student teaching assistant. After a while I started cutting most of the lectures. After all, if I wanted to hear the textbook read aloud, I could always read it aloud myself – and I probably wouldn’t do it in quite so tiring a monotone.
For some time now I had been noticing a strong de-emphasis in the quality of non skillset-based university-level teaching. It is only the latest salvo in the constant intra-university issue of what, precisely, is the true value of a university professor. Are they to be producers of new knowledge? Are they to be donor and grant magnets? Is their greatest value in what they can personally impart to the next generation of students? Or can degree assembly-line knowledge be safely de-individualised, reduced to rote skillsets which don’t technically even require a lecturer?
Universities measure tenure potential by at least four major criteria: teaching, research, earned grants, and public involvement. Of these, research and linked grants at the level of expected journal article production tend to be the most heavily weighted. Certainly they are by far the most time-intensive. Those actively working toward a tenured position soon learn to avoid the part-time lecturer positions that do nothing except devour time that could be more profitably spent on crafting articles for peer-review. Established professors are able to minimise time taken up by student teaching by recycling lesson plans from year to year, delegating to graduate students any manual grading required, as well as the tutorial sessions which are the only personalised teaching contact most university students experience.
University-level teaching technologies seem increasingly to tighten efficiency of transmission and testing of knowledge. I was shocked when I discovered that even upper year courses were marked on a T/F or multiple choice basis. It cuts the grading time to a bare minimum, but any opportunity to identify strengths and weaknesses in the student’s reasoning process is utterly lost.
I suspect the quality of the resulting research also suffers. Too often of late, while I find that I can support a given article’s argument so far as it goes, the author stops far, far short of how far that article should have gone. Not only does the article feel incomplete, but rarely in fact does it feel like more than an introduction, a re-iteration of the existing literature made to seem as though something new has been said. The publish or perish environment requires a new arrival to quickly establsh themself above the sea of regurgitated factoids and slapdash analysis. The single easiest way to do this is to stick one’s head up just far enough to be noticed, but not so far as to be slapped down. Perhaps, by stopping short, limits of personally-created academic theory are created, limits which are readily defensible (and which thus create the illusion of new research required to justify one’s continued existence within the knowledge community), and which act to encourage specialisation and hyper-specialisation – the academic killing of the [mentor] father-figure.
It is said in some circles that the teacher may teach the students, but the students also teach the teacher. Where teaching is a task delegated where it cannot be altogether de-humanised, how can both students and professors not come out second best?