Programme gets the thumbs up from new academics

04 October 2004

Freedom Gumedze

A new programme, jointly coordinated by the Centre for Higher Education Development (CHED), the human resources and research and innovation departments, aims to develop the teaching and research skills of individuals in the springtime of their academic careers.

Launched in 2004, the New Academic Practitioners Programme (Napp) provides newly-appointed staff with a year-long orientation to an academic career, with particular emphasis on teaching and research development.

Designed to cater for the annual cohort of approximately 25 to 30 new staff members, Napp consists of a series of events that range from half-day and day-long workshops to a three-day residential programme.

The litmus test for Napp is the experiences of those who enrolled for the programme.

"When you are appointed," said civil engineering senior lecturer Dr Pilate Moyo, "you are given a board, some chalk and a class and told to teach - all with no previous teaching experience.

"Teaching becomes a major challenge as nothing has prepared you for it and you are expected to be an expert."

According to Moyo, the challenge is made greater by having to teach a diverse student body.

"I was just going to stand up and teach. I was never aware of how diversity and different students' needs would impact on my teaching. Napp allows you to unpack and examine these issues with colleagues who find themselves in similar situations."

Covering topics such as academic careers in context, assessment methods, micro-teaching and using performance appraisals for career development, Moyo believes every young academic should be encouraged to participate in Napp as part of their induction process.

"Enrolling in a higher education programme enables you to become aware of issues that impact on your teaching practice. With research, supervision helps to build a sound footing, but with teaching you are on your own and it is a different ball game all together."

For Freedom Gumedze, a lecturer in the Department of Statistical Sciences, Napp's value is in affording participants the opportunity to interact with colleagues.

Dr Pilate Moyo

"I enjoyed meeting other new academics and establishing a network. I realised my colleagues in other departments were struggling with the same issues I was, for example, a shortage of research time and teaching large classes. It's comforting when you realise you are not alone out there."

Gumedze said that teaching was a daunting experience but Napp's video taping of participants' presentations offered an invaluable critique of the common errors made when standing in front of a class.

"When they played the tapes back to us you could see how you came across, what you did wrong and what you did right. It's like having your colleagues sit in on one of your lectures. You learn so you can make improvements."

He noted that on-going Napp seminars on teaching issues were useful for continually improving the quality of teaching of new academics.

Zoology's Dr Heather Marco says the new kids on the block need some assistance, even if it is just moral support. And Napp provided this.

"New and inexperienced staff members are thrown in the deep end and it can be overwhelming at times.

Academia expects that you be a super person - a super researcher, lecturer, administrator - and you try and have a life at the same time.

"By getting in touch with other new academics, Napp allows you to track your progress against theirs. And in this way you help each other out."

Despite its benefits, Marco found it somewhat disconcerting that the programme reinforces an adherence to the hierarchical structure of the institution.

"As a young academic who believes in freedom of speech, it wasn't great to hear that you should handle the university's hierarchy with kid-gloves as they are the ones on whom your career development depends."

Computer science senior lecturer Dr Hussein Suleman had words of praise for CHED's staff members.

"They are dedicated to the programme and what they are doing," he said. "They put a lot of effort into Napp. Should they run the programme again next year, I hope the university gives them the support they need."

Even with some teaching experience Suleman said Napp was a good start and he recommended that the selected group of participants and range of activities be expanded.

Napp's coordinator, Dr Suellen Shay, said the profile of staff enrolled in the programme was encouraging.

"Of the 30 participants, 19 are female and 20 are black. The majority are lecturers, with a few senior lecturers. Feedback from participants has been overwhelmingly positive, with almost all participants indicating that Napp has given them the opportunity to share experiences and observations about working at UCT and has helped answer many of their questions."

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