In the first of two pieces on teaching awards at LSE this week, the Teaching and Learning Centre’s Lee-Ann Sequeira discusses October’s Celebration of Teaching panel event.

LSE has a world-renowned reputation for research. For a smallish social sciences university, it punches above its weight in the Research Excellence Framework and is a sought-after destination for academics and students who want to pursue research in the social sciences. The picture is not quite so rosy on the teaching side.

At the Celebration of Teaching at LSE event held in early October, Professor Paul Kelly, Pro-Director Education, recalled how when he joined the School in the nineties, it was made very clear that research was what mattered; teaching merely needed to be tolerated. This culture, coupled with the lack of incentives for good teaching has meant that teaching, until recently, was sometimes relgated to second-class status. This was one of the key reasons for holding this event- to honour and celebrate teachers who were nominated or awarded a teaching prize, either by students or Heads of Departments. To see so many academics, many of whom are top researchers in their fields, attend this event and discuss the importance of teaching in their careers and identity as academics was insightful and encouraging.

 

LS 2MT2017Seeta Peña Gangadharan, winner of an LSESU Award for Innovative Teaching in 2017, posing a question to the Celebration of Teaching panel

During the panel discussion at the event, the panellists, as you would expect at LSE, brought their disciplinary lens to bear. Professor Clare Hemmings, the Head of Department for Gender Studies, explained how doing research in an emergent field is time-consuming and challenging, and how she saw it as her responsibility to teach and prepare the next generation of researchers to extend the frontiers. Dr Suki Ali, Associate Professor in Sociology, referred to her experience as a minority in her department and the School and how it has enhanced her perspective, making her a magnet for minority students who value the insight and advice of someone who has lived experience. Professor Ricardo Reis, an economist at the School, used the water-diamond paradox to explain why teaching may be underrated, which led to a lively discussion with the audience, tellingly summed up as: water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink!

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Professor Reis addressing the assembled teachers

There was a great atmosphere in which academics traded teaching tips and shared their joys and frustrations. As a nominee remarked, “Students are my greatest challenge, but also my greatest achievement.” From the spirited discussions, pithy anecdotes, and animated debate, there were three key takeaways:

Teaching and research go hand in hand

It’s that simple really. It’s a reality and there’s no two ways about it, not in the current climate. And it’s achievable. Dr Ashwini Agrawal, assistant professor in Finance, who is a recipient of an LSESU commendation for Inspirational Teaching, states matter-of-factly, “Balancing research and teaching has never been a problem for me. I’ve always just done it. It’s a non-issue.” Which brings me to the next takeaway…

We are already doing it 

That’s right. There are pockets of excellence in teaching dotted through the school in every department. The teaching awards, prizes and commendations are evidence of this. The comments on display from nominating students and department heads offer insight into how some teachers get this so right.

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Their comments clearly indicated that to teach well and effectively despite all the performativity (TEF, REF, TQARO) and changing socio-cultural expectations (students as consumers, HE is a ticket to a job), and in a way that promotes deep learning and student agency. The next step is to extend this positive teaching culture and practice school-wide. So how do we go about doing this?

Intellectual rigour

Listening to the engaged and effective teachers at the event really drove this point home. As another commendee, Dr Geoff Goodwin, LSE Fellow in International Development, put it, “My students come to university with a number of preconceptions. It’s my job to help them to think critically and interrogate existing knowledge and systems.” And this is what students value if this fairly typical comment found in the student nominations is anything to go by: “The way I think has been fundamentally changed for the better through her teaching. I have never been more challenged and inspired by an educator before.” We prize intellectual rigour in our research and in our students, so why not extend it to our teaching philosophy and approach? By applying a rigorous, evidence-based, critical and curious approach to our teaching, we will be upholding one of the LSE’s defining traditions – intellectual rigour – in our teaching.

The Teaching & Learning Centre runs Atlas workshops and fosters learning communities where academics can engage in sharing, learning and debating the purpose and practice of teaching and learning at the LSE and beyond. The next such event is our upcoming Teaching Café on 23 November -you are warmly invited to attend!

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