A lecturer rejects the idea that his is a cushy job


TO BE HONEST: An unheard voice in education

When I read last week’s article from a parent of a first year college student, I felt both angry and embarrassed. As a lecturer I am tired of my profession being impugned as a cushy number though I’m disappointed it’s still so misunderstood. I work my backside off, and even with three two-hour lectures today, I still managed to write because I love what I do and hate to see myself and my colleagues’ work slighted. To that mother, this is my response.

What concerns me most is that you still expect your adult son to be watched over and kept from falling into bad habits by someone else, but not by himself. How do you expect him to develop, if he can’t handle distractions? An adult unable to self-discipline has no place in third level.

The type of learning we encourage in students is very different from the type of off-by-heart memorisation which can be used to succeed in the Leaving Certificate. If a student sticks with that approach they will struggle to get an honour in a college exam.

Rather, we attempt to instil in students independent critical thinking – we want them to be able to learn for themselves. That’s why your son only has 17 hours of lectures a week – because he is at an institution which expects students to work without being spoon-fed. This is the key to education which I believe you are missing: it is a drawing out, not a filling up.

Students are expected to match their timetabled hours with at least as many hours of independent study. Why? Put it like this: after I’ve put my students through their paces for two hours they are exhausted. Lectures aren’t simply sitting down and listening: this is sustained concentration on difficult and abstract topics. Students need to take a break to absorb material, and this can only happen outside of the lecture theatre.

As for the breaks, you’re right – they aren’t entirely for the benefit of the students. They are the only way that lecturers get time for grading. Say your son’s class has 150 students who sit four 3-hour exams at semester’s end. Such a script cannot be graded in less than 20 minutes, which makes 50 hours of work and they also have to be moderated by another lecturer with a turnaround of 10 days. We also grade double that number of continuous assessments each semester, and prepare in the region of 10 to 18 hours of lectures per week (multiply teaching time by 2.5 to get preparation time), and also supervise and carry out research.

So yes, lecturers might be ‘off’ at Christmas, but we’re still working. I’ll bet any of my colleagues reading this will agree that St Stephen’s Day is often spent reading first year essays. And I hope that your son isn’t one of those who are obviously bright, but stick with their secondary school rote learning skills and wind up with a rather unimpressive fail. Those who don’t try to discipline themselves, and attempt to think independently always end up learning a painful lesson.

This column is designed to give a voice to those within the education system who wish to speak out anonymously. Contributions are welcome. E-mail sflynn@irishtimes.com