30 May 2006

Teaching needs attention

We wish to offer a further contribution to the issue of student learning at UCT, which evoked such extensive discussion at the Vice-Chancellor's Lekgotla of May 15. Although it had initially been intended that our observations of the event would be communicated directly to the vice-chancellor, we opted to share our observations publicly through this medium with those members of the academic staff who are active teachers. We contend that a positive student learning experience is critical enough to warrant a special attention.

To the benefit of those who were not present at the Vice-Chancellor's Lekgotla in the past week, there were alarming revelations by student representatives at this gathering. A number of representatives recounted moments at which teachers would make prophecies about the number of students who would pass the course and those who would most definitely fail. Although we concede that such experiences have not really been empirically tested, they however remain a real life experience of being a student at UCT.

It is worth noting, however, that accounts of a not-so-positive learning experience are not just anecdotal. The audit conducted by the Higher Education Quality Committee (HEQC) of the Council on Higher Education (CHE) last year took a swipe at our teaching, deeming it inadequate. Given this background, we were expecting the university's response to this matter to be that of alarm. In fact, great alarm! However, our own sense is that there is a palpable lack of disquiet around this issue, particularly with Senate. When this matter was tabled at the last meeting of Senate, its interrogation amounted to nothing more than just a murmur.

We believe that the anecdotal accounts of some of our students around the practice of "affirmation to failure" from some of our teachers, as expressed at the lekgotla, are instructive. It could be asked, for example, whether the poor success rates among our black students have become a self-fulfilling prophecy as a result of this initiation to which, unfortunately, some of our teachers, it seems, have become too accustomed. It is uncertain how pervasive these and related practices are. We do believe that it speaks to an ideological stance that diverges from good developmental practice.

The medieval university recognised in its early embryonic years what good teaching achieves in a universitas and it is expected that a 21st century university will even be more acutely aware of the benefits of good teaching. Sir James Mountford, in his account of the mission of the early university, contends that a good learning experience must:

necessarily provide the student with a positive knowledge which enhances his store of learning, and in part equips him for a career in later life. But it also has another and more notable attribute. It inculcates in the student an attitude of mind which regards the critical assessment of facts and values as more important–By entering a university, a student has undertaken to accept rigorous intellectual discipline–

Following Sir Mountford's logic, it could then be asked if some of these worrying accounts do indeed provide an environment for the student wherein critical thought and intellectual rigour can flourish. We think not.

By all accounts, there seems to be some predominance among a number of our teachers to subscribe to a laissez faire ethic (in the neo-liberal sense of the expression) in terms of student development (and student learning). We ascribe the same observation to administrative managers vis-à-vis their staff. The discourse that emanates often serves to justify a fairly hands-off approach and blindness to such social constructions such as race, class, and gender. At this point in UCT's history, that which requires that we be conscious of our past, be cognisant of the present and move towards an inclusive future, does such blindness really have a place? Could such an approach (and this is a critical question) further advance the cause of the whole student development? There is expertise at UCT on international best practice in teaching in higher education and CHED could prove a useful resource in this regard.

We hope that this contribution can help to take us towards good, if not outstanding practice, in teaching and other areas. We hope we can move beyond the point of citing achievement merely in living up to the frequently espoused academic ideal of debating these issues. Senate must note that acute awareness of our shortcomings is only a good first step towards correction, and more needs to be done. What is its campaign on this matter? When could a next cause of action be expected - ie that of improving the quality of our teaching and thus making sure that no young soul will suffer the indignity of the initiation in any one classroom from their teacher?

Roger Adams
Chupe Serote

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