This year I was nominated by the ANU for a national teaching award. In putting together the application, I realised that over the years students have taught me far more than I have ever taught them.
Before I elaborate, let’s get some lecturer groanings out of the way. Students, it is sometimes said, are not what they used to be, and they were probably never that great. They have little interest in their studies and the life of the mind. For them, university is a high-end boarding school and a low-end resort, its primary purpose being to appeal to their privileged sensibilities.
So goes the disaffected lecturer’s logic: the more I advance the more distant I become from each student intake. And I grow weary of explaining the same thing over and over. This inhibits my research, which is the true mark of intellect. Teaching is such a drag.
While I have sometimes thought this way, I remain convinced that teaching – when applied in the right dose and manner – cures the most pressing academic malaises.
Firstly, if our research ever seems esoteric, stale or inconsequential, then teaching can rejuvenate and reconnect it with topical matters and timeless questions. Often we hear about the efficacy of research-led teaching; however, it is also worth considering the value of teaching-led research. Good teaching-led research means not only coming up with new findings, but also communicating the importance of those findings to a broad and diverse audience. It involves delving into complex problems with a view to distilling a few specks of wisdom that can help us meet our fundamental quests for truth, wealth, justice and belonging.
Secondly, if as scholars we ever feel inconsequential then teaching allows us to “leave our mark” and “make a difference”. In fact, engaging with students can be more rewarding than achieving high bibliometric scores and amassing grant money.
There are few more influential and responsibility-laden positions in society than the lecturer. Politicians wield power, but are beholden to public opinion. Celebrities are well-known, but their influence is often shallow and transient. Teachers on the other hand command the attention of hundreds of people each year and are able to focus that attention on matters of substance for hours at a time. These students are impressionable without being naïve, and often go on to be prominent figures in their communities.
When scholars retire they commonly dwell not so much on all the articles that they have published, but rather on the undergraduates and postgraduates who they have guided and shaped. The lesson in the academy, as in life, is that our human relationships count most.
Thirdly, if as academics we ever feel or out of touch or adrift from our moral selves then our students can guide us back to the shore. The public, as many surveys show, still very much respect academics, and students are no exception. Indeed, my sense is that many students look up to their lecturers not only for what they know, but also for who they are.
There’s something to be said for lecturers wanting to avoid student admiration in the same way that errant but honest football stars tell young people who are looking for role models to look elsewhere. From this viewpoint, we are value-free service providers.
But there are strong reasons for scholars to embrace the expectations of virtue.
If we accept that it is good to be good, then student expectations provide an impetus for and check upon academic goodness. We are more likely to be rigorous with our research and precise with our writing having promoted rigour and precision to others.
Beyond the university, there have been times when I have refrained from swearing at that sorrowful buffoon, uttering that untruth, watching that extra hour of reality television or buying that non-free-range egg in part because a voice inside me asks, “How would your students react?” I know that this sounds incredulous, but if we accept that we should be role models for our children and loved ones, should we not also try to do the right thing for the sake of our students? Is it so much to ask those who instruct us about democracy to care as much for the many as they do the few, for those who lecture about human rights to be fair and equitable in their dealings with others, or for educators of sustainability to separate their garbage from their recyclables?
And while we should not necessarily resurrect the university as a religious institution, there is perhaps more than ever a need for a values-based tertiary education that elevates endeavour over sloth, openness over secrecy, courage over cowardice and self-awareness over self-centredness.
This is what it means for academics and the University to be esteemed. And ultimately, the goal of so much research, funding, rankings and effort in universities is to be esteemed; that is, to encourage others to want to be like us. Being esteemed is not the same as having prestige. While prestige is commonly associated with things, esteem relates solely to people and can be found at the intersection of what it is to be wise, cool and classy. This is why the most esteemed universities in the world are also the best at teaching and outreaching. And it is why the ANU now encourages staff to join and rise up in the ranks of the Higher Education Academy which is a UK-based fellowship of mindful and dedicated tertiary educators.
As it turns out, I didn’t win the award. But on the same day that I was notified of this setback, a quiet student sent me a summary of her essay in the form of two haiku poems. And I was reminded that the semester holds the promise of me teaching politics to my students while they teach me about rap, jazz, musicals and photography, much of which will surely enrich our common understanding of politics. I realized that teaching really is – here comes the final cliché – its own reward.