On Spreadsheets and Excellent Teaching
A slightly edited version was published as ‘Just Recognition’ in the Times Higher Education Supplement, 18 July 2013.
I recently attended the annual University of Strathclyde Teaching Excellence Awards. The awards are run by the Students’ Association, and students nominate teaching staff who have had a positive influence on their studies.
This was my second year being nominated, and the awards ceremony highlighted the stark contrast between the priorities of students and of university managers. In video after video, students praised teachers who put extra effort into their lectures, who are available to talk through problems, who give in-depth feedback and reply to e-mails all hours of the day or night. And yet, according to my School’s ‘workload model,’ teaching staff are strictly limited in the hours allocated for lecture preparation and assignment feedback. With no space in the model, engagement with students – whether through e-mail or in person – does not ‘count’ as part of our jobs at all.
As well-paid professionals, a certain amount of overtime is expected, especially during busy periods. But when I’m told I need to “balance my workload” and spend less time supporting students – despite being on a teaching contract – I question Strathclyde’s status as the UK’s University of the Year. When I’m told that an academic career will require me to “streamline” my engagement with students, I despair for the profession at large.
Again and again, students praised lecturers who see them as human beings rather than numbers on a spreadsheet. But to management, that’s exactly what they are. The day after the awards, I discovered that our administrators were being harassed for next year’s student numbers before this year’s exams are even finished. If student numbers drop below a certain threshold, they will lose an additional member of the team.
Meanwhile, by coincidence, the awards ceremony took place the day after my colleagues and I received redundancy letters. I work in one of the four subject areas scheduled for closure in 2015: Sociology, Geography, Community Education and Music. The letters finally brought an end to years of broken promises and anxious speculation over who would be selected to finish out our courses. By chance, I am one of the lucky ones: my contract has been renewed for two years. However, the selection process was based on a flawed numerical model and inaccurate data. As one colleague put it: “If this were a second-year data-gathering project, I’d give it a fail.” But reducing people to numbers gives the process the veneer of fairness and rationality.
It is testament to dedication against all odds that in the social science areas scheduled for closure, nearly half of the active teaching staff were nominated for awards. In a bitter irony, the winner of the Best in Faculty award will be made redundant a year before the end.
To close the ceremony, a senior manager claimed that the awards demonstrate the importance of teaching at Strathclyde. What the awards really demonstrate is that despite all the pressures, despite being seen as numbers in spreadsheets and being told to treat our students that way, university teachers are still determined to engage with students as human beings. While it’s wonderful that the students appreciate our work, I wish it didn’t end there.