Academia and teaching Daily Maverick

So what are universities for?

Originally published in the Daily Maverick

uctLast week was Academic Activism week at the University of Cape Town, although you might not have suspected that judging from the session I participated in. The activism was all in a nearby room, where Minister Malusi Gigaba somehow kept a hundred or so students chanting and singing, despite not yet having arrived at the venue himself.

So, the panel discussion on the balance between research and teaching was poorly attended, and perhaps that’s as good a snapshot of reality as any: Gigaba is likeable and apparently fairly popular, connecting with a young demographic via a strong social media presence. However, he’s also responsible for at least one regulatory proposal that’s seriously lacking in intellectual rigour (the Internet and Cell Phone Pornography Bill, at this stage apparently stillborn).

This sometimes seems to be the choice we have, even in academia. Either embrace populism (in the case of the Bill, the easy win of a moral panic; and in academia, not making your students work too hard) or run the risk of losing goodwill, students or even elections through taking unpopular stances on issues, or even through researching unpopular topics.

As I remarked at the time, I don’t doubt that the two Deputy Vice-Chancellors who completed the panel – nor the rest of the executive team – are at all uncommitted to both quality research and quality teaching. However, we should be wary of talking as if – or believing – that there isn’t sometimes a clear tension between the two, especially when we consider who the student body is.

I arrived at UCT in 1991, and had the luxury of assembling a degree for myself, with my Faculty being assigned purely by the major subjects chosen. There was significant scope for taking subjects for the sake of interest, and also for changing your mind about your specialisation, in that you’d sometimes be able to discover your mistake after completing just one semester of accountancy, rather than having completed a suite of related courses.

By contrast, that sort of flexibility is rare today. The universities are also playing a different role, in that we’re educating more future town planners, engineers, lawyers and doctors than we are philosophers. There’s nothing wrong with a university contributing to addressing the developmental challenges of society. It would be wrong if it didn’t do so (with the caveat that it would be equally wrong to assume that philosophers can’t play a part in that enterprise).

The issue is to what extent the increasing focus on professional qualifications, alongside the challenges of teaching effectively to 21st century South African students, can’t help but compromise on high-level research (at least, in the absence of unlimited resources).

Students are somewhat different in the sense that a greater proportion of them arrive at a university looking to prepare for a career, rather than to get an education. Or more accurately, a greater proportion of their interest is directed at the former goal than was the case in the past. Yet, all students – at least at undergraduate level – are supporting an enterprise that intends to produce cutting-edge research, and bearing some of the costs of keeping that enterprise running.

Some students who are at a university for a 3-year vocational degree might appreciate the prestige that graduating from a research-leading university gives that degree, and willingly pay the premium. But I wonder if that number is as large as we hope it is, and whether many students might prefer to be paying middling fees to get an average education instead, and to what extent this question should inform what, and how, we teach them.

The competencies of university entrants are of course relevant also. A recent World Economic Forum survey lists South Africa’s maths and science education as being the 2nd worst in the world (we beat Yemen), and our education system as a whole was ranked 140 out of 144 surveyed countries. Yet, our Grade 12 pass rate is 74%, and 27% of school pupils achieve University Exemption.

Leaving aside any thoughts of policy, or the future of universities, it’s very difficult for me – having taught large 1st year classes for 15 years now – to see how this intake could do anything but change the way we teach, and often what we teach, thanks to the need to undo some of the harm caused by a dysfunctional primary and secondary education system.

With regard to research, a key concern is that if publicly funded institutions like universities were not studying the subtle and complex problems that could have a significant impact on society, who would do so? We do need to incentivise research, and we also need to play a very long-term game in terms of assessing the potential value of that research.

Academic researchers need support and time for working to complex problems, even if many of those problems might end up being insoluble. Making determinations of what’s worth investigating in advance would defeat the purpose of intellectual enquiry.

Both of these complex and demanding tasks, namely producing quality research and also quality graduates, come at a cost – yet both are vital to a flourishing society. We speak as if they naturally feed off one another, and that is to a large extent true.

Perhaps it’s only true up to a point, though. Mass education of those who have been denied competent secondary schooling is quite a different enterprise to honing the intellectual talents of those who had a privileged start, thereby producing innovative and productive researchers.

Doing both of these jobs well, and for the long-term, is the commitment we seem to be making to the country. I hope we don’t let you – and ourselves – down.

Academia and teaching

If students are customers, why don’t they do their research?

A discussion I have each semester with new students is whether they consider themselves to be customers or not. The distinction I’m trying to get them to grapple with is that as students, they are themselves a key determinant of how good the “product” ends up being. In other words, they cannot just place their orders and all expect to get the same result in terms of knowledge acquired. While there are certainly some aspects of the relationship between educators and students that are analogous to suppliers and customers, it’s an incredibly poor model to base one’s academic interactions on, as it encourages passivity on the part of the student, as well as a mindset which focuses on the student’s rights, rather than their responsibilities.

Academia and teaching General

Teaching EBMgt: developing better managers, or educating critical thinkers?

On the Facebook group Evidence-Based Management, Laura Guerrero asks:

In terms of the big picture, I wonder what people think in terms of why we ought to teach using EBMgt.

I hear people talk about studies and research. The way they talk about these suggests to me that they do not understand what they are or how to evaluate them. For example, there is a study that says that plastic water bottles leak a substance in to your water and this is bad for you.

Here in Canada, a number of people threw out their water bottles and bought metal water bottles and now city parks want to ban bottled water. A number of stores have stopped selling this type of plastic bottle. I wonder if people have a sense of what ‘bad for you’ means, how this finding was reached, whether they should trust their morning news anchor to deliver scientific news, and so forth.

I wonder if it is my responsibility as a professor-to-be to instruct students on how to be critical thinkers and skeptical consumers of information. In other words, I think that EBMgt is important to develop better managers who will make better decisions. But I wonder if there is also a bigger purpose: to educate critical thinkers.

The students in my Evidence-Based Management course at the University of Cape Town are almost all just out of secondary school, and I suspect that my answer to Laura’s question would be very different if the course was being taught to graduate students in an MBA class. Generally, I’d have to argue that teaching Evidence-Based anything would require the students to have some understanding of what evidence is, when it is needed, and what to do with it. So while we would hope that graduate students know some of this already, we can’t take that knowledge for granted. If your students don’t understand the basics of scientific reasoning, teaching them EBMgt may well end up being a simple installation of various principles that they could proceed to treat as dogma, thereby remaining as uncritical as they were when starting the course. So yes, where students don’t have the knowledge in question, it would be a professor’s responsibility to instruct students on how to be critical thinkers first, before embarking on any discussion of application of principles in critical reasoning, such as EBMgt.

The job is perhaps easier at undergraduate level, such as in my course. There, it’s almost invariably the case that students have not been exposed to the principles of drawing conclusions based on the available evidence, and are quite comfortable with holding contradictory or incoherent beliefs, simply because they have never been exposed to the contradictions or incoherencies. In this context, teaching EBMgt starts with general principles of scientific thinking and critical reasoning, and often ends there too, because as anyone who teaches this material work knows, there is much work to do in terms of undermining the prejudices and lazy thinking habits that permeate the cognitive processes of the average student. It’s only once the fundamentals of reasoning are in place that we can begin to talk, and think, about more complex cases of evidence-based reasoning in professional practice.

A fantastic recent book that I’ll be adding to my course as suggested reading is Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science, which does a terrific job (as regular readers of his blog and Guardian column will know) of highlighting and explaining some of the obvious ways in which our species makes life so much harder for ourselves, through constantly believing the most crazy things simply because we’re too lazy (and often unprepared) to think about them.

Developing better managers is certainly a positive result, but it pales into insignificance when compared with developing better thinkers more generally. Some of those thinkers may go on to be good managers, but in the meanwhile, we’ve also hopefully helped to produce a few good teachers, plumbers, doctors and parents.