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Posts Tagged ‘universities

The wandering university teacher

Displaced from my own country, I have been “on the road” now for 7 years.  In that time, I have taught at five different universities and colleges with quite different characters.  They have varied from the old to the new.  Students have come from all over the world.  And the staff ‘gave a damn’, or ‘didn’t’.

What my experiences have taught me is that there is a steep learning curve adjusting to the culture of a school.  ‘Old’ universities allowed for this by having long settling in periods.  People did not have a full teaching load at the outset and their responsibilities in other areas were reduced too.  There was often elaborate support outside the college with subsidized housing, sports facilities, etc.

17 ways to get a new lecturer up-to-speed quickly

In these days when colleges churn their staff and try to make every penny out of them that they can, it makes sense to manage the learning curve of their lecturers and professors.  This is what I have learned from my moves.

  1. Allocate some time to learn the culture of your school.   Arrange for people to observe various classes and pick up what works and what doesn’t.  I had the opportunity to do that at one school and something as simple as walking away from the podium into the audience, where the light was better, seemed to make students with happier.  I suspect students are sensitive to lecturer’s facial expressions and they need to see our faces.
  2. Have communication channels and time available for lecturers to hear and react to students reactions to classes.   Whatever method you choose, don’t divert student reactions to junior tutors or managers, neither of whom can pass feedback  on effectively.  When they receive feedback, positive or negative, their job should be to facilitate a meeting and direct communication.  In the days of the intranet, chatter channels where the lecturer is also a member, work quite well.
  3. Have people in the building who speak the students’ first language and are sufficiently comfortable with other cultures to explain differences in expectations without provoking defensiveness.
  4. Be honest about the level of your school.  As a general rule of thumb, over-ambition kills a teaching initiative. We cannot do more than the skills of students allow.  We cannot do more than the equipment and libraries support.  The dumbing-down happens not when we get students to take the next step in their learning curve.  The dumbing-down happens when we define a highfaluting curriculum and have to pretend students are doing tasks that are way-over-their-heads.  This seems to be a fault of weaker schools who are trying to pretend they are something they are not.
  5. Identify the teaching unit.  I taught a 2 hour class in one school and contended with 20 emails a day on its administration.  On the whole it is better to let one person start and finish something.  If one person cannot manage course from beginning to end, break it up into two courses!  What you spend on lecturer costs, you will surely save on admin and managing misunderstandings.
  6. Keep the degree structure simple.   The more students are swirling around registering and deregistering, the more admin you have to do and the harder it is to relate to them as people.  When you have complicated systems, the school begins to be run by the admin staff and lecturers increasingly stop being teachers.

And also consider the absolute basics

When I arrive to take up a new appointment, these are the minimum and not very demanding facilities that I need to be effective.

  1. A clean desk and 10 hour rated chair, a bookshelf, a new internet-enabled computer, and a lockable filing cabinet in an office that I can work in quietly, tutor students and leave my personal possessions and half-written exam papers quite safely.
  2. A file with the regulations that pertain to the course.
  3. A clear map of the computer servers and any information that I might need.
  4. A visit from IT to set up any passwords that I might need.
  5. Students enrolled and present no later than 10% into the course.
  6. A list of any other resources I have (budget, printing press, photocopiers, etc.)
  7. Library access and an opportunity to tour the library.
  8. Any previously prescribed textbooks and material.
  9. A written brief on the culture of the school.  If it is not written down, then do not be surprised when we trip over it!
  10. If there is a course manual, have the material presented in one place.  What I don’t want to see an idiosyncratic syllabus with a “goals” for students, then a “text”, then questions and model answers, then another set of goals for the lecturer, then another set of suggestions for class.  This is nonsense.  The text is the model answer and the questions answered by the text are the questions.  One manual should do the trick.
  11. Examinations should have the same assessment process as the in-term assessment.  If the students will write essays in the exam, then the continuous assessment should be essays, etc.  The examination should reflect the skill we are assessing and that is what students should be practicing during the term and that is what the classes and textbook should model.  If students cannot make the step-up to the assessment within a month of the course beginning, then perhaps the course should be redesigned.  The following two months should be for a repeat cycle with fresh content but the same skill.  The last month should be for revision.

Paradoxically, in the olden days when people moved in and hung about for decades, these facilities might have been in place.  Now that ‘managers’ have speeded-up the churn, they can’t always keep up with the business model that they have put in place.

My list of 17 as a gift to you.

    I know my institutions and can read their behavior

    Many years ago, I friend of mine was negotiating his salary with his employer.  To aid his efforts, he paid a friend who was an employment agent to advertise a job just like his and to offer a wonderful package.

    My students at the time were all excited.  The advertisement vindicated their choice of major.  Yes,  if they worked hard, they could follow an institutional path and be rich!!

    Not even knowing my friend’s devious scheme (I found out later), I dismissed the advertisement with a contemptuous, “It’s a scam”.

    See, I knew three things that my students didn’t know:

    • The prevailing salary rates, not just in my profession, but in sister professions of accounting, marketing, etc.  I knew what the market thought was reasonable.
    • Business conditions and the amount of gross profit available for institutional careers (you know the one’s guaranteed by the taxpayer no matter how much you mess up)
    • That people run institutions lie.

    Before I worked as a work & organizational psychologist, I too thought institutions were honorable

    I remember the first time I fell for an institutional scam.  It was a painful experience and it took me years to get over it.

    We trust institutions

    When we are young, we believe that institutional leaders are honorable.  Institutional leaders go to great lengths to make us believe that because that is their job.  After all an institution is only an institution if it is stable and trusted.  So they will tell you anything to have you believe they have done their job.

    But we should remember that to check whether they are trustworthy

    And that is why we must not trust them.  We must ask for evidence.  Hard, cold evidence.  What are the career paths in the organization?  Where are the statistics?  What are the future scenarios for the organization?  Can you look at them?

    An institutional leader cannot use his own spin as evidence

    Lord Mandelson is doing the right thing by making universities show students the destinations of graduates An institutional leader cannot hold up his own spin as evidence that he has succeeded in making order and stability for us.  He was to show us the evidence.

    In the days of the internet, data on the institution’s performance should be freely available

    And I am afraid that if that in the days of the internet that if that evidence is not freely available on the internet in slurpable form – meaning that you can download the  input data, not the processed data – then they obviously have something to hide.

    Harsh words, I know

    But remember my friend, and remember how my students were taken in.

    Ask questions and the first question is ~ what happens when I ask?

    First sign of scoundrels running the organization

    If they don’t want to answer, or if they set up a meeting where we are doing all the answering and our questions come after they have made up their minds, then they are frauds.  Then they are frauds and and we have found them out.

    Disappointing, of course.  Doubly disappointing.  Trebly disappointing.

    • We don’t get what we want.
    • Institutions by definition should be honorable.  So we don’t get what we want AND we know we have frauds in our midst.
    • Institutions are usually paid for by the taxpayer.  We don’t get what we want, we know you are trying to cheat us AND we are paying for you.

    My priorities when you use public money to cheat me

    Hmmph.  Well for now, my priority must be to get what I need and want.  Then I will participate to clear out the rotten institutions.  Then I will think about recovering my money from you.

    Is that the right order?

    For the young & inexperienced

    And if you are young and inexperienced, stop trusting institutions who don’t trust you with hard, cold data.  Spin that they have done their job of making a safe, orderly environment for you is not evidence. Ask for the evidence.  If they don’t have it, act accordingly ~ warily ~ get what you need and in due course, expose their shenanigans.

     

    I learned from the masters of administration!

    I went to a university where we moved through a degree programme in lock-step.  In year one, we took 2.5 subjects, 2 compulsory papers from each of the first 2, and one paper from the third.  In year two, we took 4 papers from one of the first two subjects and 1 from the second.  And the same in year three, but a different set.

    The sum of variation allowed was changing the order around 5:0 and 3:2, or if you were really smart, taking a 6th paper.

    The university waited for no one

    Not even babies!  The university took a simple view that examinations were taken once and once only and deferred only for matters totally outside our control.  Sporting matches, babies that after all arrive on quite a predictable schedule, family celebrations – were all deemed matters under our control.

    Even being detained without trial by various rogue governments wasn’t deemed a reason to vary the schedule!  The university made a slight concession and brought you exam to your in jail!

    Good administration leads to assured output & a productive life

    The net effect of this policy is that the university opened and shut on time. People began degrees and finished them. The simplicity of the administration in that university was just stunning.

    All requests had to be made before the event. Nothing was considered retrospectively. All decisions were made on facts marshalled on one piece of paper.  Decisions were made against clear criteria that were public and you knew what you could request from whom and on what grounds. All decisions were reviewed at the next level up where they were considered against new criteria.

    A lecturer (professor) graded your paper and the lecturer’s colleagues approved the mark. Those marks were put together and an inter-Department committee approved your GPA/class of degree. An inter-Faculty committee checked that the Faculty committees weren’t being too lenient or too hard.  An eminently logical, rational, fair and transparent environment.

    Lock-step systems can be inefficient when misunderstood

    Lock-step systems don’t always produce efficiency or fairness, though.   I came out of that system quite well, and I am not unhappy that I studied psychology, sociology and anthropology. But I had actually wanted to study psychology, economics and mathematics – which I was very good at.

    Novices need guidance not on the system but how the system will serve their goals

    To achieve that combination, someone with knowledge of the system needed to sit my 17 year old self down and ask me what I wanted to do.

    The answer would have been for me to enrol in the Arts Faculty for a B.A , to read psychology (2 papers) & economics (2 papers) in the Faculty of Social Studies, and Mathematics (2 papers) in the Faculty of Science!

    Apart from being too complicated for a noobe to find, that solution would have made me a little insecure because a BA (General) has a lot less status than a B.Sc. (Hons) and I wouldn’t have read Sociology (upsetting my father).  I would have studied though what I wanted to study and created the choice of transferring in second year to a straight Honours in any of the three subjects, or continuing with a more general mix including picking up Sociology in second year.

    Would I have been better off if I had taken this road? Who knows!  What I do know is that the system was more concerned with its lock-step, which was very efficient, than making sure I developed to my full potential.

    Lock-step systems require highly qualified front-line staff who understand the values and goals as well as the plan

    I quite like lock-step systems because they give people a clear model of what to do.  We need to ‘see ahead’ when we are a ‘noobe’.

    But we can waste resources and time too easily when we don’t distinguish values from goals from plans.

    • We had three values in our case– broad first year, Honours (meaning specialize) in 2nd and 3rd year, and finish neatly in three years.
    • The plan is the lock-step system I described at the top of the post.
    • The goal was my goal – to study psychology, economics and mathematics.  That got lost.

    To make sure that the (usually) naive client pursues their goal, we need good frontline staff who can find out what my goal is – or what the client’s goal is.  That is paramount.

    • We only use the model to communicate the values concretely. It shouldn’t be a strait-jacket.
    • Then we make a plan that fits our streamlined system, adheres to our values, and allows the client to pursue their goal directly in the comfort of our well run service.

    Most systems in Britain are plan-led.  Lock-step supersedes common sense.

    I see so much in Britain where the plan seems to override the goal.

    We’ve borrowed 175 billion this year to keep going. That is 3000 pounds per man, woman and child. Not that much, hey?

    I bet we could simplifiy our services to cost less and achieve heaps more by having

    • much simpler models (a lock-step model to convey the idea)

    • spending more time finding out the goals of individuals

    • and lastly creating an individual plan to navigate the system.

    This wouldn’t put people out-of-work, it would just allow a lot more to be done at a fraction of the cost, allowing the country to make more money to pay the bills!

    We the unhappy punters would feel better and get more done. We would spend less time on the phone talking to call centres and officials whose main job it does seem is to fill in meaningless bits of paper for meaningless procedures whose ultimate destination is a a database left on a train.

    P.S. The people who thought up the systems at the well-run uni were Scots.  We have the expertise.  We just don’t seem to be using it.


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