Searching for best practice as a casual academic

This week has been the “Festival of Teaching” at SCU where I currently work. I was initially quite enthused about the various panels to be held throughout the week, but now looking back I think “bereft” is perhaps the best word to describe my feelings about it. It seems to me that to be a good teacher, what leads to good practice, and what makes students happy and the most engaged in the material requires is the key thing that academics — particularly casual academics such as myself — don’t have. That is, of course, time.

I loved all the great examples of teaching methods and approaches outlined in the Good Teaching Showcase on Wednesday afternoon. The educators who presented where passionate about their subjects, and about having the best possible results from their students every year in terms of quality teaching and also meaningful engagement. Almost all of the presenters pointed to the importance of the design of the subject from the very beginning. In order to foster critical thinking, build in reflective or journal tasks. Mandatory participation in the form of blogs, forums, seminars, and so forth was also recommend to provoke greater engagement from the students, and many ITC solutions were offered, such as Elluminate and Second Life.

I want to provide the best possible environment for students, and to turn every class into one that the students will look back on and think, “That class changed how I think about everyday life.” Hopefully it was fun at the same time. But as a casual, particularly now that I am teaching external (online-only) students, I just don’t have the time. I knowthis problem isn’t unique to casuals either, but in our case it is of particular importance. I only get paid for one hour of prep per week (per subject), one hour for contact per student per session, and one hour for “online” per week (which means checking the discussion boards and answering emails). If I wanted to design a visually stimulating Elluminate session (as Tony Yeigh recommended at the conference), I suspect it would take me a whole day to prepare, never mind deliver.

I always end up working more hours that I can claim each week, but I still want to offer a good experience to the students. I considered using Facebook as a discussion tool instead of the Blackboard site (as it’s a ghost town), but a colleague advised me not to as she predicted it would double my workload. I then trialled Elluminate, but was again advised that only one or two students will attend the live sessions unless they are mandatory, and so they are not worth it in terms of the massive time committment required to plan and execute it.

As as this ABC report points out, nearly 60% of all teaching at universities is done by casuals in the same position. (And most are worse off than myself: my teaching load is manageable with only two subjects, and I have no mortgage or children to worry about in terms of finances.)

So I have left the Festival of Teaching rather demoralised. It seems as though if you want to commit to offering  quality teaching to your students, you have to make do with long, unpaid hours. Is there any solution? I don’t foresee the corporate and institutionalised culture of universities changing any time soon.

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One response to “Searching for best practice as a casual academic

  1. Katie,

    I completely agree. I am also passionate about teaching, and learning. I had a peer review of one of my tutorials which resulted in lots of great tips and strategies. It’s great to connect with others who are passionate. However, the need for subject design and overarching course design to work together is clear to support the classroom techniques.

    I got good and interesting feedback from students, and I have a great subject co-ordinator who will do what they fan within their role to use it. But there’s research to suggest that the more you create opportunities for students to form their own study and peer groups and follow topics that interest them, in ways that interest them, the better. I guess for engaged students anyway. If you can create thematic, social, process connections across subjects and through the whole course then all of the social and interpersonal levels to learning (which are significant factors) can continue.

    Like you I hope to learn from my own experiences as a student, take on feedback and best practice research, and darn it I just care about people and learning, but the structures are frustrating. As is time.

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