Researched to death? How universities have sidelined teaching

Unthinkable: Academia has its priorities backwards, says author Zena Hitz

Zena Hitz has particular concerns about the quality of teaching, an issue that goes beyond the coronavirus crisis. Photograph: Oli Scarff/AFP via Getty

Zena Hitz has particular concerns about the quality of teaching, an issue that goes beyond the coronavirus crisis. Photograph: Oli Scarff/AFP via Getty

 

The sudden transfer of third-level courses to the virtual world due to the Covid-19 pandemic raises an uncomfortable question for the education system: just how much real teaching has been going on in universities?

Creating online courses at short notice serves the function of keeping students moving along the conveyor belt to graduation. But is something being lost in the process – and if so, what?

American academic and author Zena Hitz is one of many people in education uneasy about the rushed reforms. “The way the universities are treating their students in this crisis, one way or another, it’s fairly mercenary. They’re looking at them as a source of revenue and they’re not thinking about them as human beings who might have certain needs,” she says.

Hitz has particular concerns about the quality of teaching, an issue that goes beyond the coronavirus crisis – albeit “Covid has shed a cold light on things”.

She is a tutor at St John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland, and is a strong advocate of lifelong learning. She is also a writer and has vividly captured the frustrations of career academics in her book Lost in Thought.

Tales of disillusioned college lecturers are legion but Hitz’s memoir is profoundly affecting as she describes how academic life made her lose her love of learning before, finally, she found a meaningful path.

Zena Hitz, author of Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life.
Zena Hitz, author of Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life.

“I started out at a liberal arts college, where there has always been an emphasis on learning for its own sake,” she says. “I went into elite-research academia and then at some point I felt disconnected from the issues of the day, the needs of my neighbours, and all of the ways in which our society is in crisis or difficulty. For me the revelation was to realise that teaching could be a kind of loving service.”

Part of her journey was converting to Catholicism, an unexpected event that followed a chance visit to Mass. There was no blinding light or powerful voice from above when she wandered inside a local church. Instead, she writes in Lost in Thought: “In the pews around me I saw people of all races and backgrounds – some with families, some alone, many on their knees in quiet prayer... We were each of us there alone, and yet united in something invisible and beyond my reach.”

A Catholic convert who is also an advocate for the intellectual life? How can this be?!

Hitz explains all.

Where have universities gone wrong in their mission?

“In my view, they should be supporting learning for its own sake, the kind of human development that isn’t marketable.

“I do think scholarship is beautiful and wonderful but I think many academics become disconnected from the intellectual life of ordinary people and they forget that we have a duty to everyone in our communities, to help them think and reflect and study according to their interests.”

You describe in the book how, in the competitive world of higher education, it wasn’t enough for you and your peers to get status and approval – “we wanted it at the expense of others”. Do workplace incentives bring the worst out in educators?

“I think that’s right. You take a bunch of people who are competitive at work, maybe they are trying to escape a background they found humiliating in some way, and then you offer them an infinitely complex ladder of prestige for them to move up in, and then at the top of the ladder there is also significant compensation in terms of money and privileges. That’s for research academics.

“You see, at the other end of the scale, people who are dedicated teachers – the adjunct community – they are treated like absolute garbage. They have no prestige, they have no power, they are paid poverty wages, at least in the US, and these are the people to whom we are entrusting the education of the young.

“I think that’s very backwards. I think teaching should be at the centre of what we do, especially forming the next generation. Research is something important for us to hang on to for the sake of our wellbeing and intellectual lives but we all know there is too much of it. We all know it doesn’t add to the social value the way teaching does.”

One thing that troubles you is “education by opinions”. Why so?

“It is a feature of large classrooms and I’ve been guilty of it myself. It’s an easy thing to teach both sides of a question. You say, ‘Here is Peter Singer saying eating meat is wrong; what do you think? What’s the other side?’

“I understand why we do that because it’s a way of trying to respect the students as individuals. We’re not just trying to tell them what to think.

“However, there is such thing as an inquiry where you really do some work examining a question and thinking through all its aspects. And the practise of inquiry is much, much richer than having an opinion. I’d much rather someone did a lot of thinking about, say, whether eating animals is right or wrong than if they came to one opinion or another.

“Another part of the picture is what is called the politicising of universities. It has been a common complaint on the American right that universities have become places of indoctrination for left wing views. I think that’s a bit exaggerated and also misses some of what’s going on because various right wing, conservative organisations have set up counter institutes or counter forms of teaching.

“There’s another level to it where there’s a movement for viewpoint diversity where we have liberal and conservative views and they should be given equal time or equal respect. To me that looks like a real dumbing down - everything becomes an opinion and no one is thinking anymore.

“If you think about politics, and pick up any of the classics of political philosophy - Plato’s Republic or Hobbes’ Leviathan, or Rousseau or Locke - you get a so much richer understanding of what a political community is, well beyond contemporary issues.

“You enter this other world and consider what a political community is, and what matters about it, and then you see your own world differently, and again that’s much richer than having an opinion. That’s seeing the world differently; it’s seeing the contemporary world in the light of thinkers of the past.

“I want us to get to richer forms of learning, forms of inquiry, and inward travels of various kinds. This swapping of opinion makes education a bit like social media – what do you like, and what do you not like?”

Is part of the hesitation among teachers to such exploration the risk of causing offence?

“My experience in the classroom has been the deeper one goes - and it’s easier when you have a text which is very meaty and very rich - the more relaxed everyone becomes. So the things which really get people upset are these superficial exchanges of opinions; that’s what really hits the wounds, whereas if you’re really thinking hard about something and you’ve really found a way of asking a question which gets past the wounds then I think you can have quite astonishing conversations.

“It’s not easy to do. It takes practice and the failures are rough, I can tell you, but it is worth pursuing.”

How do universities impede this kind of inquiry?

“One of the things not talked about enough is that sizes of classrooms are much too large. We are dealing with mass education and that means we are teaching in classrooms where it is virtually impossible to build any kind of trust. That’s one basic way institutions are making it very difficult to have these sorts of conversations.

“Another thing, which is much more widely recognised, is that administrators, especially in the US which is very litigious, are very PR conscious. They are always managing the PR and legal liability and they want as little fuss as possible. So they’re not interested in you taking a risk that might result in something profound if it also might result in something that’s going to hit the newspapers or generate a complaint.”

Students in temporary lockdown at Manchester Metropolitan University in England pose their own philosophical question. Photograph: Paul Ellis/AFP via Getty Images
Students in temporary lockdown at Manchester Metropolitan University in England pose their own philosophical question. Photograph: Paul Ellis/AFP via Getty Images

What reaction did you get from your peers when you converted to Catholicism?

“I was very anxious for a long time about just this question - what are people going to think? - because if you’re a non-believer and move in non-believing circles people say crass and insulting things about believers all the time. So I didn’t want to be subject to that.

“I am sure there are people who think that I am not a serious person because I am religious. But what has happened more often is that people who are secular, or non-believers, are quite interested in my being religious and they want to hear about it.

“Many people who lost their religion feel like they have lost something and they are hungry for ways to communicate that without being bullied or shamed. They just want to hear someone’s experience like mine of growing up in a very secular environment and finding serious difficulties with that kind of environment and really finding through religion a way of living that’s healthier and more wholesome and freer than would have been otherwise.”

How do you marry your faith with your teaching?

“As academics we tend to think, ‘Oh, people who help the needy are doing the real work and what I am doing is somehow decadent’, but, in truth, the poor also need learning; they need the human things. So if you’re providing learning of substance to people who need it, it’s enough. It’s hard to do in our institutions but it’s enough.”

ASK A SAGE

Question: Do you get wiser with age?

Louis-Hector Berlioz replies: “Time is a great teacher, but unfortunately it kills all its pupils.”

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