Universiteit Leiden

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‘Teaching is a craft, not engineering’

Brandon Zicha (Leiden University College The Hague) had always been critical of the teaching system at universities. But it was only when he passed the Senior Teaching Qualification at the end of last year that he was able to explain exactly what was wrong with it.

This is part three of a series of interviews with lecturers who have recently passed the Senior Teaching Qualification.

‘What makes me so different from everyone else?’ This question would often cross Brandon Zicha’s mind. A lecturer at Leiden University College, he would be at meetings with his colleagues when he would suddenly see red, or in his own words, get pissed off. ‘It would be all rules this and bureaucracy that, when all I wanted to do was teach. “Are we training critical thinkers or paper technicians?” I would sometimes ask myself.’

Less of a jerk

Now he finally understands what it was that was making him so mad. For his Senior Teaching Qualification (STQ) he had to create a portfolio, update his CV and write a 6,000 word essay. All in all, a ‘ridiculously demanding’ dossier therefore, but it did give him a chance to crystallise his ideas about teaching and to pinpoint what it was that was frustrating him so. ‘It matured my ideas and made them more coherent. And I’m less of a jerk, because I understand it, something my colleagues will hopefully have noticed too.’

Don’t be mistaken: Zicha loves the university world. He sees universities as essential cultural centres in free societies where we reflect at some distance on society and where the repackaged information is used to the benefit of us all. And he especially likes the teaching. ‘You’re very close to the students and are responsible for forming their worldview. That’s huge.’

Senior Teaching Qualification

The STQ is a qualification for lecturers who play an active role in the University’s educational development and innovation at the curriculum level, so beyond the limits of their own discipline. For the qualification, lecturers have to create a portfolio demonstrating that they have achieved the four learning outcomes, which relate to:

  • Conduct within the academic teaching environment
  • Creating and elaborating on a teaching programme with a view to the context of a curriculum
  • Preparing and providing teaching
  • Having an impact on the teaching within one or more degree programmes that extend beyond the lecturer’s own teaching programme.

In addition, the lecturer must meet the following criteria at the start of the process: be in possession of the Basic Teaching Qualification, have taught different courses and year groups at a university level for at least five years and have applied a variety of teaching methods.

Obsession with science

But that’s precisely what is scaring him. He believes that higher education is gradually losing its soul. ‘Universities are way too focused on research results. It’s an unhealthy obsession and it’s unclear to me who benefits. What is clear is that the general public is decidedly uninterested in research metrics such as the citation index or impact factor. They want to see what’s in it for them, and that’s obviously the thousands of graduates who enter the job market every year and take on important roles.’

Worst of all is that the obsession with science is beginning to drive the humanity out of the lecture hall. The ‘system’ leaves little room for the art of teaching, says Zicha, because teaching is also having to become science based and driven by academic research. ‘But teaching is a craft. You can’t treat it like engineering. We have to take science as advice rather than a rule.’

Brandon Zicha receives his STQ.

STQ as next logical step

Zicha has been working at Leiden University College since 2011, which had just opened at the time. The team was small, so he had to assume all of the statutory roles from the outset. This meant he wasn’t just a lecturer, but also a member of the Board of Examiners and the Faculty Council. He built up an ‘idiotic CV’ in those years, so the STQ was the next logical step in his career. For this, he had to write down his teaching philosophy and explain why he approached his curriculum from a particular angle. ‘It might be of use later on in my career: if I ever want to be an educational director, for instance.’

But Zicha wouldn’t be Zicha if he didn’t question the STQ itself. ‘It’s a nice qualification for me, of course, but it’s not going to prevent the demise of university teaching. It feels a bit like the University wants to give some form of recognition to me and other lecturers without actually having to loosen the purse strings in order to take the teaching to the next level. I worry they are giving us a cookie instead.’

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