Posted in Learning, Studying, Teaching

What I do and the value of what I do: A long read

We are asked to introduce ourselves. Most people give their name, title and something about the work they do. It’s my turn and I say ‘Hi, I’m Sharon. I do stuff.’

People laugh and then the next person introduces himself, gives his title, says something about what he does, and that continues around the table.

But … what?

Why did I respond in that way? Why didn’t I give my title and say something about what I do? Particularly as the people around the table are my colleagues. Most of them – if not all of them – know my title and what I do.

Weird.

Even weirder, now that I think about it some more in the cold hard light of day. And when I say ‘cold’ I mean freezing. It’s so cold today I’m sitting inside with a woolen hat on, a buff (a scarf without ends) around my neck, a warm cardigan, while the heater dribbles out heat in the background.

I went to see Cornelia (not her real name) yesterday afternoon. Cornelia is my onc-psych (yes, apparently there is such a thing) and I told her about this because I thought it was interesting and it fitted in with other things we were talking about.

Cornelia challenged me to describe what I do and the value of what I do to an imaginary audience of Grade 5 kids. Or Prep kids. Or people who aren’t in the same industry as me.

So here I am. I’m sure she didn’t mean for me to do this on my blog, but as you’re my audience and might be good enough to give me your time and possibly some feedback, I thought I may as well describe what I do and the value of what I do to you – a real, rather than an imagined audience.

Or perhaps you are an imagined audience. I’ll imagine you’re out there, sitting in the warmth, scrolling through your emails, finding one from Musings on the Cold, and saying to yourself ‘what the heck. I may as well see what Sharon has to say today.’ And here you are.

Grab a cuppa, this is a seriously long read.

What do I do in my professional life and what is its value?

I’m a Senior Lecturer (Student Engagement) in the Faculty of Business and Law at Deakin University.

I work with academic staff (those who teach undergraduate and postgraduate students) to help further develop their teaching practice. I also work with those who work with academic staff to help them further develop the work they do in working with academic staff in further developing their teaching practice.

That sounds a little convoluted, even to me. Hopefully, it will become a bit more clear as (if) you read on.

Academics have three main parts to their role:

  1. Research (that includes writing grant applications, conducting research – writing ethics applications, designing surveys/questionnaires/interview schedules, gathering and analysing data, writing peer reviewed journal articles …)
  2. Service (engage in committees that make decisions about important initiatives, take on leaderships roles …)
  3. Teach (prepare unit guides, design the structure of an 11 week unit/subject so that it has a coherent thread, design assessment tasks, record lectures and podcasts and be animated and lively as you do it, align assessment with learning outcomes, develop learning resources to scaffold student learning, determine ways of engaging students and tapping into their personal motivations and interest for studying this subject, liaise with library staff about library resources, liaise with language and literacy advisers on the best way to support students’ academic development, liaise with the work integrated learning team to determine how to incorporate some employability education into the unit, ensure compliance with the Higher Education Standards Framework in terms of discipline knowledge and also how to teach and assess, present information, meet with those teaching into their units to ensure there’s consistency in the information provided to students and in the ways students are being taught, respond to student requests for extensions, comply with standards for online learning (accessibility, etc), respond to student requests for information that was in the Week 3 notes but that the student hadn’t accessed, respond to student queries about whether this particular nugget of information will be in the exam, wonder why many students don’t turn up to class, mark student assignments, give feedback to students saying the same thing over and over ‘your work could be strengthened if you accessed the materials and attended more regularly’, conduct moderation meetings to ensure all markers are marking consistently and are providing positive and constructive feedback, write a unit review at the end of the semester to justify the high fail rates, ensure there’s a spread of grades consistent with a bell curve even though we do criterion-referenced assessment to which bell curves don’t apply, read student evaluations that often say hurtful things of a personal nature (Sharon is fat, Sharon has no sense of humour, Sharon’s hair is ridiculous), respond to student enquiries within 48 hours, ensure the unit is inclusive of those from rural and regional areas, those from a low socio-economic demographic, those who have a disability, those who work, those who have children and elderly parents, those who don’t really want to be in this subject, this course, this university, this country but they have to because their parents’ expectations are high, engage students in active learning, teach them about teamwork and self management and critical thinking and problem solving and global citizenship as well as disciplinary-specific content knowledge, be familiar with a range of technologies, pretend you can do all this … and more …).

A ‘balanced’ workload is 40/40/20. That is, an academic will have 40% of their workload allocation devoted to research, 40% to teaching and 20% to service.

Many academics come to universities as experts in their field. They are expert accountants, or financial planners, or foreign exchange traders. They are keen to undertake research. Research builds your profile nationally and internationally. Research builds a university’s profile nationally and internationally. There are university rankings and all universities want to be at or close to the top. You get close to the top primarily through research, although teaching evaluations from students plus success and retention rates are also part of the equation. But research is important.

Most academics have a PhD and so come to the academy knowing how to do research. Once at the university, they often get onto research teams and are mentored and supported by more experienced others in how to write grant applications, how to write ethics applications, how to write journal articles, how to get published (or they mentor and support those who are newer to academia). They publish in teams and so an academic might have their name on a dozen papers, along with a dozen other academics, all of whom contributed in some way to the research, although not necessarily to the writing of the paper. It’s very important to have your name on the paper. It’s how you and the university builds a national and international profile.

Photo by Jilbert Ebrahimi on Unsplash

Not many academics come to universities knowing how to teach. They’ve been in school, they’ve spent time in universities as students, but just as going to the dentist regularly doesn’t mean you know how to dentist, being a student doesn’t mean you know how to teach. Teaching is often something that is done individually. A unit chair will do much of the work I mentioned in point 3 above. On their own. Often with limited time, particularly in the initial stages of unit design and development.

Many academics come to teaching with the idea that teaching is about telling students what they need to know and then testing them on that at the end of the trimester to see how much they’ve ‘learnt’. Not many academics build their national or international profile through teaching. Not many universities get to the top of the league tables through teaching.

Teaching is often evaluated on the basis of what students have to say and when what they have to say is unhelpful (Sharon is fat. Sharon has no sense of humour. Sharon’s hair is ridiculous) then it’s difficult to know how to improve. Teaching tends not to be a team activity. There’s little mentoring and support from more experienced others. Research into your own teaching is called ‘scholarship of teaching and learning’ rather than research and isn’t valued as highly as ‘real’ research, even though there are grant applications to write, ethics applications to develop, data to be gathered and analysed, writing of a journal article that will be peer reviewed … it’s just like research but it’s called scholarship and so doesn’t count as much.

So for the academic who comes to university primarily to engage in research, teaching can be an uncomfortable space. An often unsupported space.

Photo by Edwin Andrade on Unsplash

Universities provide support for the technological aspects of teaching: how to record a lecture (as in, which buttons to push) but not so many resources on how to record a lecture (as in, how to engage students in the ways you present information, the structure of the lecture, ways to be your authentic self in front of the camera); how to develop a rubric (as in, which buttons to click to ensure it’s in the right place within the learning management system and that the numbers add up accurately) but there are fewer people employed to support academics in how to develop a rubric (as in, how do you develop criteria that align with the learning outcomes, what language do you use to differentiate between someone’s capacity to communicate at a Distinction level rather than a High Distinction level; how to assess quality rather than quantity – how well the references were used to suppport the writer’s argument or analysis rather than how many were used).

I am a teacher. I’ve been a qualified teacher since 1997. I’ve spent over 22 years in classrooms of one sort or another and/or supporting those who teach. I started out teaching English and Drama to senior secondary students. English teaching (and preparing to be an English teacher) meant that I learnt about language and purpose and audience and structure and communicating in writing as well as verbally. It taught me about nuances in language and about the formalities of language – about register and tone and semiotics and syntax. And about deliberate communicative structures and when it’s okay to break rules and why apostrophes are important.

Drama teaching (and preparing to be a Drama teacher) taught me about embodied learning, about authentic learning, about experiential learning, about giving feedback, about being in the moment, about jumping in and doing rather than sitting back and thinking, about experiences and ways of communicating them through real and imagined events, about emotionality and how to make a scream with your body rather than your voice, and about experimentation and trying things out, about flexible and creative thinking, about the importance of reflection to the learning process, and the importance of breath and movement and of voice – of using it and supporting it.

Photo by João Silas on Unsplash

And for many years I worked in radio. Working in radio taught me about time – time management, time use, how to fill it, how to structure it. It taught me about audience – communicating with the audience, listening to the audience, speaking to one person rather than to many, imagining your listener and speaking directly to that person. It taught me about structure, how to use music to carry the program through an hour of ups and downs, of melodies and rhythms; how to use pace, when to speed up and when to slow down; how to edit an interview and to structure it to make it flow; how to present information, how to ask open questions, how to encourage people to tell their story, how to build relationships quickly, how to use humour to add light and shade to an interview (Sharon has no sense of humour), how a smile warms up your voice. It also taught me the importance of preparation, whether that’s preparing for a music program, a talk program, a panel interview, an interview with a member of parliament, for talkback with Peter Cundall, for dealing with technical issues in a dignified way on air and ensuring your microphone is off before you fall to pieces.

For many years I was a teacher educator, teaching those preparing to become primary and secondary school teachers. Teaching and learning, assessment and planning, curriculum and pedagogy were what I taught – they were my disciplines. I was teaching people about teaching – asking them endless questions about the role of schools in society, the role of teachers, the reason we teach what we teach in schools. I encouraged students to think about who they were as teachers, why they were teaching, why they were teaching in the way they were teaching, encouraging them to think about how they use their time, how they structure it in the classroom, how they plan for learning, how they know that learning has happened. I was also teaching about self-management – about planning, monitoring and evaluating your own learning, critical thinking, communicating to diverse audiences, working as a member of a team, ethical practice. In addition, I taught Drama and Literacy and encouraged students to keep their teaching real and authentic and embodied and experiential. I developed as a teacher-educator over time, just as, years before, I had developed as a teacher over time.

And so now I know something about teaching and learning and engagement and assessment. About how to structure the presentation of information, how to communicate with an audience you’re not in front of, how to ask questions that elicit responses that go beyond yes/no answers. I know about unit design for oncampus and online teaching and learning; I know what strategies will encourage active learning; I can use language effectively in the development of rubrics; I know how to design a unit to encourage intellectual engagement as well as professional and academic engagement. I have written articles and conference papers about teaching and learning, I have developed my knowledge and understanding and practice from a myriad of authors who engage in the scholarship of teaching and learning. I attend conferences and listen to how others enact their teaching and how they encourage students to engage in learning. My ideas about teaching are built on experience and reflection and scholarship and research and reading and interacting with others. And, if I’m honest, my ideas about teaching are also built on my experience as an educational leader.

And so, I do more than ‘stuff’. I work with academic staff (those involved in teaching) to further develop their teaching practice. I encourage them to reconsider the ‘teaching as telling’ approach; to think about teaching as an embodied, experiential, authentic endeavour that leads to students being more effective communicators and critical thinkers and team members and problem solvers.

And I work with those others in the team (colleagues employed as learning designers or educational technologists or educational developers or project managers) who also work with academic staff, to further my colleagues’ understanding of teaching and learning and how best to work with academics in helping them further develop their practice.

As well as the many failures I’ve had, I’ve also had some successes. My office is littered with Teaching Merit Certificates from my years at the University of Tasmania. Last year I was awarded Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. HEA Fellowship ‘demonstrates a personal and institutional commitment to professionalism in learning and teaching in higher education’. Senior Fellows need to provide evidence of a sustained record of effectiveness in relation to teaching and learning, and so it was an honour to be successful in my application.

Most recently, I was part of a team awarded an Australian Award for University Teaching (AAUT) ‘Citation for Outstanding Contribution to Student Learning’. Only 30 were awarded across Australia and again, I felt very honoured to have been part of a successful team.

Here I am with fellow team member, Assoc. Prof Victor Fang and Vice-Chancellor of Deakin University Professor Jane den Hollander AO at the AAUT awards presentation earlier this month.

So perhaps I need to acknowledge that I do know stuff, and that it’s quite valuable stuff to know, and that I can add value to others’ practice and ultimately to the student experience.


I tend to think I lost the Prep audience some time ago, and possibly the Grade 5 audience too.

But what about you? Did you make it this far?

If so, do you consider what I do to have value?

Any comments are most welcome, apart from the ‘Sharon’s hair is ridiculous’ type 🙂

 

Author:

I like to travel and take photographs. I like to blog about both.

7 thoughts on “What I do and the value of what I do: A long read

  1. Hi Sharon,
    As a former educator, I always enjoy hearing about my colleagues’ careers. I never taught at the collegiate level here (although I thought about it) but it seems the adage, “Publish or Perish” is alive and well in academia. Which leaves teaching students a distant second. How disappointing. Research is important, yes, but isn’t the goal of a college or university to educate? And if teaching is not valued it doesn’t happen very well, does it? We all can remember a brilliant professor who was a terrible teacher.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great thoughts and as always you are inspiring with all you do and have done. Your work does have tremendous value and hopefully having written all of it out, you can also see the value in it yourself. What you do is worthwhile and of great value to academics, teachers, students and all the other various stakeholders involved and you certainly should acknowledge it to yourself at least. Nicely written!

    In response, I think I’ll stick to the description you used first and say Hi I’m Debbie, I’m Sharon’s big sister and I do ‘stuff’….but not a lot of it anymore 😂and yes you lost the Year 5 and prep audience right back at the beginning.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Sharon’s hair is ridiculous could make a great discussion or headline!

    On a more serious note, over the ditch here we have had the biggest turnout in history to march/protest in bring recognition to how much teachers are undervalued and underpaid.

    I applaud you for sticking to the profession for as long as you have done so!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks Suzanne … I keep thinking I want to move away from education but something keeps drawing me back to it!

      Good on the NZer’s for turning out in support of teaching. It’s so easy to dismiss as something that anyone could do, but it’s amazingly complex and requires highly skilled and highly dedicated people to do it effectively. Better recognition of that – through pay and other means (e.g. more respect shown to teachers) – is always needed.

      Liked by 1 person

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