It is the people that matter in teaching


Ducks swimming on water

By Professor Merlin Crossley, Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic Quality

Published 21 February 2023


When I was a student I read several books by Arthur Koestler. He was a political and philosophical writer.  About ten years before Orwell wrote 1984, Koestler published a similar novel Darkness at Noon. Recently, I came across an interesting quote from Koestler – a reader wanting to meet an author, is like someone who enjoys foie gras wanting to meet a goose.

I think this is wrong.

I think authors, like teachers, are worth meeting. The identity of the author matters. That’s why we have book festivals. It’s partly why authors are interviewed on television (that and to sell books), and it is why works written by Chatbots will never be more than aids.

Once I find an author I admire, something new happens. I try to find other works they have written. I’m seldom disappointed. There are many great writers that deliver again and again, as do top musicians and film makers, or film stars.

It is the same with teaching. When I was a student my choice of subjects was heavily influenced by which teachers I admired. The material in the course was also important but often it was more about the person. I didn’t really know what the material would be next term, but I knew the teachers. I had confidence in and trusted some teachers.

Since I don’t attend many classes these days, I can’t always know whether teachers are engaging, inspiring, and effective, but if I see someone taking over a course and the enrolments going up, I figure some inspirational magic is occurring. Magic isn’t everything – the substance must be there too, but given the standards of the Australian university sector it usually is. Most academics have jumped over high intellectual hurdles to get their jobs, so there aren’t many charlatans playing to the gallery. If students are engaged, it is often because the teaching is good.

Interestingly, in the Netflix drama The Chair the number of students flocking to each class was a major lead indicator for success in academic teaching. In Australia our universities are very large, with student to staff ratios maxed out in some classes, so this measure isn’t as visible. But sometimes you can tell when students vote with their feet.

Of course, teaching, like most things, is a team endeavour. Courses depend on a range of staff in each department and on the work of librarians and sometimes a small army of dedicated tutors and demonstrators, as well as the course co-ordinator and primary lecturers. It also depends on the institutional culture and how much teaching is valued.

Part of me wants to move away from the myth of lone heroes, but recognising individuals still has a place. When Marie Curie won her two Nobel Prizes it inspired and continues to inspire generations of researchers, but when the equally worthy Red Cross or Amnesty International won the Nobel Peace Prizes it wasn’t quite the same. Humans relate to other humans, hold them in their hearts, and emulate their efforts, ultimately often achieving great things, and a sense of fulfilment, themselves. We should recognize team contributions, but also identify and celebrate role models.

I am regularly warned that universities are past their best, that new technologies are taking over, or that courses will be delivered by professional consultancy firms or computers, and that degrees are not holding their value. I think this misses the human perspective. Each year I see a new wave of undergraduates fledging the nest, mingling on campus, and I see talented lecturers igniting their curiosity and inspiring the students to embrace new concepts. I can’t see this being replaced by impersonal, rehashed, online material.

The technology and a lot about the world of work has changed since I was a student, but human DNA hasn’t changed. Universities will be here for a while yet. We should build on what we have. We should target support to great teachers and great researchers – because these are the people who will get the most out of the new technologies.

The technologies themselves are nothing to fear and they are also nothing without the key people. Supporting great academics is a better plan than preparing to take up arms against the slings and arrows of technological disruption that are apparently once again gathering just over the horizon. That’s the thing about universities – the staff and the student are taught to innovate. They’ll know what to do.

It’s not about the foie gras, it’s not about the goose, it’s about the chefs. If you do want to know more about that shy author Arthur Koestler, you can read any of the six autobiographies he penned between 1937 to 1984!


This article was originally published by Professor Merlin Crossley on his blog website on 10 February 2023.



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