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Universities are changing, not dying

  • 23 September 2013

Currently, Fisher Library at the University of Sydney is subject to a renewal project. The transition is discussed by Daniel Stacey in a piece for Fairfax expressing concern about the removal of books from the library to storage, and the reworking of that space to 'hot desking chill zones and break out areas'.

On reading the piece, I had an initial pang of recognition, for the University of Sydney is my alma mater too, having studied for a science/arts degree there, and a PhD. Fisher's 'renewal' raises a number of questions, from the simple to the catastrophising: What about all those books? And what about a university's responsibility to provide abundant texts for learning? Is this a sign of the end of quality learning and teaching at universities?

Fisher's renewal began in earnest in 2012. Since then I've convened a third year human geography course at Macquarie University, and am halfway through convening a first year gGeographies of global change' course. In so doing, I've learnt a lot about what students expect from a university education, and the ways that educators have to change to support the learning outcomes we want them to achieve.

I've got excellent mentors at Macquarie, including other early career academics, who teach me what they've learnt through their own teaching, and more experienced academics, who share their longer-term views. Which is lucky as I'm enthusiastic about good teaching and also keen to distribute my research for discussion and debate.

I don't see these as mutually incompatible goals and love working with others who approach academic work in similar ways. Contracted, junior staffers like me are doing much of the teaching, and the pressure to 'publish or perish' may lead to poorer outcomes for students, especially if there is a lack of prioritising of teaching roles. These are not new dynamics, yet the greater number of people graduating with PhDs does intensify them.

As an early career academic, I have only convened a small number of undergraduate courses, but in one course there was a participation mark given to students for attending and contributing to tutorials. Happily, the students did attend these classes and gave substantive efforts to generating learning.

One reason for this participation, aside from the enticement of earning marks, was that they involved a range of different learning modes: from role plays for negotiating resource management, to reflection on learning over the semester, to critique of map-making for the