Higher education cannot be just teaching, especially just transfer of knowledge. It must foster disciplinary identity and professional development
Two years ago, I invited a prominent American scholar to lead a webinar discussion for a group of professors at a regional university in Nepal. I wanted the expert to help my colleagues with how to develop writing- and research-intensive assignments and activities that would help foster disciplinary identity in students. He had a brilliant plan for the evening (morning in Nepal).
Our facilitator started by asking participants, who were professors of engineering, natural sciences, social sciences, management, humanities, and education, to write down what made them the scholars they were. “What about the way you read and genres you write, or the material you call evidence or methods you use for research, makes you an engineer or scientist or scholar of humanities?” he asked. “In other words, what gives you the disciplinary and professional identity that you have? You may start by thinking about why you chose your discipline when you started your career.”
When time came for sharing what they wrote, participants didn’t say much. The question didn’t seem to resonate very well with them.
After the facilitator provided some more guidelines, there was some breakthrough. A few of the ten or so participants shared stories about when and why they became teachers. An English professor, for instance, had found private schools a good choice to use his English language skills. As I learned more later, the science and engineering instructors had taken up teaching jobs as an alternative path to further education that may not have worked out. The sociologist and economist, who were women, seemed to have found teaching relatively flexible to fit their family commitments. Even the education scholars focused on teaching more as a job than a discipline. I wouldn’t blame them, given that the system requires too much teaching and rewards little else.
Here’s the larger problem. Few of our science professors, for instance, seem to consider themselves scientists. There’s little incentive for developing that professional identity. There’s not much opportunity or obligation to approach knowledge-making “like” scientists. Indeed, the very design of our university—especially the model of professional development, curricular and pedagogical cultures, and role of faculty—does not prompt professors to keep updating themselves with new research methods, to maintain rigor, to rethink what counts as knowledge as their disciplines evolve.
The social scientists in the room did seem to do research in ways that helped them and their students to study social issues. They had done fieldwork, published from it, and helped their students “learn by doing” some of the concepts and skills in their fields. But then, our expert question had a second part to the exercise.
“How do you help your students learn to be scientists, engineers, educators, and managers in terms of how they read, write, and present their ideas and themselves?” The assumption in the guest’s question was, for instance, that the science professors would teach with a deliberate focus on producing future scientists, the management professors future managers.
Certainly, in any country, college is a more or less odd place to prepare (not to mention produce) professionals for the workplace and society outside. Even in more economically privileged societies, the teaching/learning context of college is too academic, many professors too engrossed in their academic questions and specialized jargon. And there is almost never sufficient resource or time to replicate or immerse students in professional settings. So, higher education usually resigns itself to helping students build intellectual foundations, learn general academic skills, and expect to translate what they learn to different careers later.
But as researchers of writing and communication have found, education can help students develop a sense of disciplinary and professional identity. They noticed that if students begin college by saying, “The article says that…” and shift the language to “The researchers found that…” after a year or two, in four years, when taught well, they started taking intellectual positions and responding to texts as parts of disciplinary conversations with the authors.
So, the problem our group was facing had to do with the fact that apparently most of our professors hadn’t thought about themselves as scholars and professional members of their “disciplines.” They seemed to only consider themselves “teachers.” They taught. They “covered” the course, which was almost entirely books written by someone else usually someplace very different. They helped students to pass exams. Teaching of skills, fostering of intellectual agency, facilitating of professional growth were all incidental and not thought through.
Even within academic systems where teachers cannot select their own textbooks, they can “use” textbooks as material for helping students analyze and critique, synthesize and respond, debate and present, apply and extend the content in the books. Trying to use current knowledge to get things done in life and society can help to build bridges toward a new system where students learn to generate new ideas, solve problems, question received wisdom, formulate new theories, create new designs and improve social systems.
I must pause here to acknowledge that I am leaning heavily on the assumption that the “quality” of higher education depends on whether it teaches and promotes disciplinary identity, professional skills, and preparation for success in society. That is, there are other ways of defining that quality.
Quality of education may depend on purpose and context (social, economic, etc), especially in relation to the learner involved. For the average (and still poor) Nepali family, secondary education has quality if it helps children build strong foundations in math, science, social studies, and languages. For the few rich, quality may also involve trying to preserve heritage, such as by infusing certain kinds of art, literature, music, and theater into the curriculum. They may also expand opportunities in the world by integrating networking and world travel, special subjects and leisure. While all children deserve the same opportunities, when resources are limited, practical concerns take priority.
Of course, the focus and purpose of learning in some disciplines (such as literature or philosophy) will seem less “practical” than in others (such as engineering or management), but for the average Nepali family, higher education is not a luxury that can remain divorced from careers and professions. It is one thing to focus on intellectual foundation building, another to ignore what kinds of foundations will be socially most meaningful and professionally most rewarding.
Then there is the larger question of how quality of education can be defined at a national and social levels (with an emphasis on regional autonomy and needs on the ground, I might add, in the context of federalization). It is not enough for us to vaguely talk about grand “philosophies” about how education must ultimately make life meaningful. How is it going to do so in and through the economic realm? What are we going to do to situate well-rounded individuals/citizens (who are inquisitive learners, critical thinkers, global citizens) as citizens of a particular nation at a particular historical juncture and trajectory? How can we update and advance our traditions, from the spiritual to the social, in a world that is increasingly globalizing? These are the questions that teachers as well as colleges can and must ask.
Shifting the focus
Education as knowledge transfer is outdated. So is the definition of quality by how much education costs, which language is the medium of instruction, whether other markers of “prestige” are attached, or whether students get high grades to show off. Unpacking our ideas about quality must involve shifting the focus from exams to experience, from high grades to deeper learning, from teacher-dominated to student-centered classrooms, from passive to active engagement, from course coverage to professional development. These shifts are possible and necessary for students in both public and private sectors, for rich and poor, especially at the tertiary level. These shifts are necessary for the development of professional skills and disciplinary identity and vice versa.
When teachers just lecture, just cover the course, just prepare students for exams, we cannot blame them. If they are only judged or rewarded on the basis of pass percentage and high marks of their students in the exam (some colleges even give awards based on these criteria), both they and their students will try to survive and thrive by focusing on exams alone.
Instead, colleges must start hiring and rewarding professors who do research and produce/publish new knowledge. Only when they do so can they answer—for themselves and for their students—what makes them who they are, academically and professionally. We must start moving in the direction of producing experts and professionals that the society needs.