One of my favourite things about living in a multicultural society is the opportunity to work with people from many cultures. Diverse and multicultural societies are fulfilling, from the sharing of food, music and traditions, to an appreciation of the rich and varied ways we see, interpret and understand the world.
Exposure to multiple methods of seeing, interpreting and understanding is, in itself a process of knowledge making. When this occurs on a societal level, we create a more resilient and robust culture – a culture that evolves, one that is open to learning, and is flexible in response to the unknown: the new, the surprising, the intriguing, the other.
This is not the ‘other’ identified by shock jocks, who, in a narrow and inflexible sub-culture of their own, simply present an ‘us-and-them’ viewpoint: we, the civilised; and them, the alien, who must learn to be like us. This pushes us towards a homogenised culture that excludes and marginalises. It is a violent culture. While stopping violence is a goal on which all can agree, both society and the state allocate resources to not only exclude and marginalise but to forcibly remove those who can be described as not being ‘like us’. And here is the challenge: what does ‘like us’ mean: is it those with the same religion, skin tone, family structure?
One of the disclaimers I always make when invited to speak about my teaching is that I am not someone who has been trained in pedagogical theory. Rather, my journey into teaching has been about figuring out what I loved (and hated) about being taught, a bit of trial and error, not being afraid of making mistakes, learning from those mistakes and asking the students around me for honest and constant feedback.
Once some sort of pedagogical breakthrough emerges from these approaches, I review the literature, seeking pitfalls, opportunities and lessons.
So when I am asked ‘what advice can you give me about lecturing’, there are seven tips tend to share… Here they are and I hope you find them useful!
1. Want to be there…
Have you ever been on a date that you do not want to be on? The lecture room is exactly the same. Unless you want to be there, the students will wonder what they are doing there! I know we have bad days or even bad weeks, but I do believe that being an educator is a real privilege, and we should never forget that.
Just before I start a lecture, I always look at the classroom and think, ‘How lucky am I… I am about to introduce a bunch of exciting ideas and start some amazing conversations…’
It has been an amazing year for me both professionally and personally. Professionally, the highlights are almost too numerous to mention but include being promoted to full professor, delivering 21 keynote presentations, giving five conference papers, publishing a new book on citizenship, appearing on a massive billboard and running a subject with over a thousand students yet still receiving some of the best student feedback ever.
It was the year that I was the Prime Minister’s University Teacher of the Year and carried that honour with pride. On the advice of my University’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Corporate Strategy and Services) Rhonda Hawkins, I took every opportunity to promote ‘good teaching’. It was invaluable advice and established a framework in which I assessed my work. While I also facilitated a number of workshops giving advice on ‘good teaching’, I also learnt more knowledge than I had to give.
On reflecting on all this, here are eight lessons I learnt this year:
One. It is easier to be a cynic than supportive:
For some reason, most academics think it is cooler to be cynical than give credit. Recently I saw someone’s enthusiasm dismissed as ‘not collegial’ rather than celebrating that individual’s passion. Rather than being excited and supportive about each other’s work, it seems it is easier to be dismissive.
It would be hard to argue against the idea that the current political environment is toxic. We have reached a point that political point scoring outweighs what is in the national interest.
This kind of politics tends to split the electorate along party political lines: we take sides, wanting ‘the other side’ to fail no matter what the consequences.
There is no doubt that Tony Abbott and his Coalition made an art form of this in Opposition. The Gillard Government was attacked at every turn and in the move to bring down the government, Mr Abbott made some strange bedfellows – most notably at the anti-carbon tax rallies.
Mr Abbott also said some things that in hindsight, we can only presume he regrets. Most notable is the time when Mr Abbott, referring to the Prime Minister during a debate, stated that:
‘Now, are you suggesting to me that when it comes from Julia, no doesn’t mean no’
The connotations of sexual violence could not be missed.
Now in Opposition, the question is how will the ALP react?
More importantly, how do we progressives act more generally?
I do believe that some things are beyond politics and not only in the national interest, but important for our society.
As established university-based lecturers, it is easy to forget how unnerving attending your first weeks at uni can be.
This is particularly the case if, like me, a student is the first member of their family to make it into university. We forget that it is like visiting a foreign country with its own cultural rules, regulations and expectations.
I have spoken about this experience in detail including in an interview with The Department of Industry to promote their Opening Doors program. While my story is available here, I would certainly recommend looking at the other inspiring stories that outline the many opportunities that outline the opportunities that university offers (click here!).
One of the strategies I use to make the students feel comfortable is to try and make them to feel excited before they even arrive at uni!
The way I do this by setting up an ‘Out of Office’ reply that congratulates them for coming to uni, gets them excited and answers any ‘frequently asked questions’ that most are too shy to ask. I have built these up over the years from queries I have received as well as feedback from students.
Sombath Somphone – Thanks to New Matilda for the image
Long before I become an academic, I described myself as ‘an activist’. Though it is a vague term, most people associate it with left wing protest movements. While I would say that I have an affiliation with these movements, I also never comfortably squeezed into any ideological framework. Once, for example, a dear friend described me as ‘left-leaning neoliberal’ – not quite how I see it, but why not?
When I became a full-time academic, many people commented that my activism would be left behind. While the shape of my activism has changed, I do not see what I do as anything but activism. As I have written before, the role of an engaged academic and an engaged university, is to promote social justice, fairness and attempt to speak truth to power. Academic method, academic and mainstream writing and public debates and interactions are now my preferred tools.
Wits University, Johannesburg
Since being awarded the Prime Minister’s Teacher of the Year Award, I have been lucky enough to be invited to deliver keynotes both in Australia and internationally. While the focus is generally on ‘what makes a good teacher’, invariably, the changing environment that universities confront is raised. The university of today faces new challenges beyond funding: these questions of relevance and accusations of being disconnected from broader society (you know, the one about universities being ‘ivory towers’).
As such, I have been researching the future of universities.
In the contemporary economic environment, universities both as sector and individually, are increasingly called to quantify their value. This is aggravated by the emergence of Massive Online Open Courses that promise all the content without either the costs incurred or the time commitment. In a paper I published recently, I argue that the future of universities is embedded in building community engagement principles. The paper was published by DEMESCI and is available for download (for free) here.
One of the topic areas I teach that creates the most comment and controversy is the area of ‘social construction.’ The idea here is that things we expect to be ‘natural’ or ‘innate’ are actually learnt behaviours.
There are various areas where many struggle to come to grips with this concept – but two areas in particular are ‘race’ and ‘gender’. That is, women and men are assigned certain roles in our society: these are not innate, but are a result of the way our society is structured. Traditionally, men have been assigned ‘decision-making’ roles and women have been carers – and we expect them to act in this way.
Likewise, we can see how certain groups based on skin colour have assigned expectations. As I tell my students in class, if we imagine a bunch of guys in a pub carrying on and they are caucasian (or white), we think ‘dickheads’. But what happens if they are Lebanese or Indigenous or another group? Do we still think dickheads or do we relate their behaviour to their skin colour? The lesson from that class is simple: dickheads are dickheads no matter the colour of their skin. But people are not dickheads because of the colour of their skin.
I recently wrote an article for New Matilda on expectations towards women in our Continue reading