Academic responsibility – the biggest dichotomy in Trinity

Teaching standards in Trinity are defined by arrogance and negligence, final year student Conor Coughlan argues

Photo by Joe McCallion

I remember the first time I attended a talk in Trinity. It was the Maths and Physics open day 2013, and I was a naïve 18-year-old Leaving Cert fresh from off a bus from Galway. The defining moment of that day was when an aged academic came in to talk to us about why we should study Astrophysics. He fumbled in his pockets for a few seconds, and subsequently realised he had forgotten to bring his slides on a USB key. He spent the next fifteen minutes telling us about the great contributions that Trinity had made to science, and why we should study at Ireland’s ‘elite’ university.  He had no real regard as to whether he had communicated his message appropriately.

No time was given for questions after.  The woman sitting beside my father, a science teacher, muttered to him “there’s no accountability at third level” in a tone of contempt. Unfortunately for me, I did not realise how true that was until over four years later. It has taken this time to realise that, since my very first year here, the standard of lecturing was often very weak.

There were some modules where the teaching was excellent and the academics were humble when presenting their knowledge. However, for every hour where I felt like I was learning a lot, there were three that I would rate as mediocre to poor. Lecturers could not communicate adequately, did not appear to be interested in the material they were presenting, and in certain circumstances forgot that they even had to teach, resulting in lecture rescheduling or cancelling.

Learning new material effectively in such an environment is impossible, and by my second year, I was skipping many lectures as it simply was not worth my time to attend them. I would end up learning a lot more spending an hour in the library, than attending a lecture on the very same content.

One might ask that, why if it was so bad, that I have not said anything about it until I am practically finished with my degree here? I started to accept this practise early on in first year, as I was told that it was “just the way it is” and you are “never going to change these people”. As a result, I never really challenged the way they were presenting the information to us, and dealt with their terrible explanations and poorly constructed content by wasting my own time.

Many hours were spent in the library piecing together the meaning of poorly constructed slides. Too much time was spent suffering from information overload or underload, and trying to understand information that they had mentioned in the lecture that turned out to be entirely incorrect. Everyone in my classes from courses such as Nanoscience, Physics, and Chemistry of Advanced Materials were undertaking the same challenge. Teaching ourselves this complex material due to the laziness of our instructors was a burden we shouldn’t have had.

A consequence of all this is that many of us in the course will achieve stellar results, which will be in line from our results in previous years. The lecturers we have learnt the most from, if asked, will state it was due to our own efforts that these results were achieved. On the other hand, many academics who are guilty of miscommunication, incompetence and arrogance about their own abilities will say it was down to their standard of academic rigour and unquestionably superior teaching methods.

Prior complaints have resulted in accusations of students being entitled and clearly not recognising the superiority of a ‘Trinity’ education. The Trinity education is in fact defined by sheer negligence, the claim of superiority is highly questionable. These academics can do no wrong, and are above any “accountability” that should be in place.

The final straw was when we were attending a lecture conducted by our Senior Sophister year head. He is obligated to take on board any complaints we have about the teaching over the year. When one certain distinguished academic was mentioned, he told us that “there’s no changing him, the course was the same since I took it”. While it’s clear that attempts were made in the past to revolutionise his style of teaching, he refused to comply. Why is he still teaching?

Lecturers at third-level do not always have rigorous teaching training, unlike their secondary or primary level counterparts. This creates a severe disconnect in the transition from second level  into college, one goes from teachers who have a responsibility to teach to a certain standard, to academics who sometimes can barely relate to many people in public, let alone communicate their specialty to students who know little about it beforehand. Couple this with the fact that some seem to despise their teaching responsibilities and would much rather be conducting research, and are also generally poorly organised individuals. The result is a much more mixed bag with few opportunities for redress.

This transition from school to university is promoted as embracing “self-directed learning”. It is supposedly learning because you want to rather than because you were told to. However, many staff have used this as an excuse to absolve them of all teaching responsibilities that may go beyond being present in the lecture theatre and possessing slides. The rest is apparently optional, and we should be grateful that they are giving up their valuable time to be in our presence.

Trinity is an academic hub in Ireland, given all the “noteworthy” academics who have attended or been a part of the community here. The sheer prestige of the institution has been the jewel in the crown of many who have attended, and its connections with other universities and organisations  have served me well. However, the standard of teaching might well be better in less “noteworthy” Institutes of Technology than it is here.

It will be interesting to see whether Trinity will recognise the archaic and sub-standard teaching methods, and will attempt to change in a way that serves the students who pay money to attend here. Trinity can only lean on its prestige and the initiative of the students for so long. Maybe when they rank outside of the top 100 universities in the world. Maybe when the superficial footer in their emails stating  “Trinity College Dublin, the University of Dublin is ranked first in Ireland and in the top 100 world universities by the QS World University Rankings” can no longer be attached. Perhaps we might see a change then.