Academics should see themselves first as teachers. In my view any faculty member working in a university who doesn't like teaching or goes to every effort to minimise their contact with students should really consider doing something else. Students are our first public and often our most important audience and some of them are also our future colleagues. There is something deeply troubling in the extent to which the priorities of university life - despite the rhetoric of teaching quality and research-led teaching - make teaching an activity of secondary importance.
There is no doubt that the commodification of higher learning has transformed the student experience. They not only have to save up and pay for studying but as a consequence students more and more see themselves as consumers. "I needed to get a 2.1 in your class," complains the student on receiving his grade of 52. The complaint is not simply connected to an unfulfilled aspiration but he feels he is owed a return on the cold hard cash he has paid in student fees. Regardless of these changes and all the things that go can wrong in the classroom there are still those precious moments. It doesn't happen all the time but it is when the teacher in that moment has somehow caught the imagination of the whole group. You can feel a dense silence that hangs over the room almost as if everyone in the lecture hall has stopped breathing. It is hard to put a price tag on that deep attentive silence and it is why teaching still matters.
On 22nd April 2008 the University of Warwick's innovative Reinvention Centre for Undergraduate Research hosted an exhibition created by Cath Lambert and Elisabeth Simbuerger called 'Teaching and Learning in and for a Complex World'. It aimed to open up a dialogue around teaching and scholarship. Attending the launch at The Teaching Grid in Warwick's central library I was struck by how the sentiments that adorned its smooth glass surfaces seemed out of step with the priorities of the 21st century British university. Along the glass walls leading into the exhibition a quotation from Joseph Beuys in bold letters proclaimed: "To be a teacher is my greatest work of art".
A sound installation called 'Sociologists Talking' formed a key part of the exhibition, drawn from interviews conducted by Elisabeth Simbuerger with sociologists about their work, teaching and aspirations. The installation offered an opportunity to eavesdrop on the conversations that we are all having with our colleagues, friends and even ourselves about the state of the academy. Each set of headphones was connected to a digital voice recorder with 20 minutes of talk looped continuously. Actors reconstructed the voices in order to protect the anonymity of the participants and the interview transcripts were performed as in a play. All the 'informants'/ 'characters' were drawn from a single department in a university from the Russell Group. Only Elisabeth was identifiable; she played herself.
Regardless of the priority given to research and publishing, most of