The joy of academic life

I have now been an academic staff member at USQ for some 12 years and have worked in Higher Education for some 23 years, so I suspect I can now reflect, to some degree, as to the virtues or otherwise of such a ‘privileged’ position.  The notion that an academic is a person cloistered in a secure space, divorced from the real world, is not consistent with my experience. On the contrary, universities today need to be keenly aware of what it means to be relevant in society.  With KPI’s, ROI’s and the emergence of Academic Standards closely aligned with Student outcomes, universities, or more particular academics within the universities, have very little room to be precious about what was seen as their ‘academic freedom’ (“I can do whatever I please as I have won the right to sit in the Academy and postulate”). The student has become the consumer and they now want value for their money, and so they should. A society that demands graduates with real-world skills can only get those skills from people who live in the real world. However, this should not be confused with the notion that real world skills are simply a series of tick boxes; “see I can now communicate”. The role of the academic has always been, and still needs to be, one of leading students to become leaders, in their own right, in their chosen fields, firstly at a skill level, but far more importantly in their ability to intellectualise and progress their profession.

me talking again
Addressing a gathering on the Student Learning Journey

I was recently presenting to 400 academic staff at another institution and was speaking on the concept of the Student Learning Journey and how institutions today need to ensure what they are offering, in terms of support and information, is fully aligned across the various and dispersed elements of the institution, to key interaction points in the life of the student. Particularly important is meeting these students at their time of real need; such as when they are struggling to enrol or are having a problem understanding what their lecturer is wanting them to do in their first ever assignment. Clearly this is not just something that happens by itself, and equally it is not something that is only handled by the administrative staff, it is the responsibility of the whole institution. For this to be the case the notion is that there is also then a ‘Staff Learning Journey’ that aligns itself with the life of the institution and meets them at their point of need; such as when they are struggling to understand why their students aren’t responding to their electronic communications, or understanding how they can engage their student in real-world activities. My experience would suggest that most academics want to do the right thing by their students, but do not have the right support mechanisms in place, or know who to ask at the right time.  They sit in their offices engrossed in dealing with student issues every day, rarely meeting with their fellow staff members to discuss the ‘real’ issues around teaching. Is it pride, not wanting to appear dumb? Maybe. Or is it that they are just to jolly busy? In some cases (not all) ‘yes’. But it is not quite that simple.

Academics are usually expert in a field; nursing, engineering, maths, etc., but few have actually learned the art of teaching. It is supposed to have been something they just picked up along the way and some have been able to do so very successfully; some. However, unlike years gone-by where students (the privileged few) sat and absorbed the pearls of wisdom emanating from the academics mouth, today we are dealing with a whole different cohort of students. Today we are dealing with more than 20% of the population, as against the top 4-5% of yesteryear (only a generation ago).

The answer? No, I could not be so presumptuous, not so soon. Ask me again in 10 years. Having said that, if we consider the journey of the student and take an interest in the life of the student, we can begin to see that we have the ability to nurture a life, not just teach some knowledge. We plant a seed, water it, fertilise it (not feeding it shit, but wholesome food) and then ultimately enjoy its fruit.

The very real example of this was when I was in my preparatory year for art collage back in 1977.  It was a specially designed year 12 I did between school and university (college), designed specifically to get you into Art College. Having come from a very regimented all boy’s school in Melbourne, where they were tailoring you to become a doctor or a lawyer (I did not fit that mould) to a school that took an interest in the person, I experienced for the first time a teacher who was interested in developing up the talents that lay deep within. The teachers name was Julian Rabbels, and he genuinely took an interest in all the students and where they were going to end up. It was only one year of study, but it changed the course of my life and set me on the right road. Not only did he instil in us (in just that one year) a direction for our chosen profession, but he also instilled in us a passion for learning and wanting to discover. He wanted us to surpass his level of knowledge and reach for new spheres. In a very real sense by him doing this he was in fact extending his own influence and knowledge vicariously. Was he conscious of that? I do not know. But for may years after I left that one year course I would revisit Julian’s class and tell them (and him) of my progress and encourage the next group of students in what they could achieve.  That is my aim.

A memory that brings me great joy!

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