On the value of awards

The week before last was a bit of a gold-star week for me. Firstly, I received Athabasca University’s Craig Cunningham Memorial Award for Teaching Excellence.  Secondly, Jisc named me one of the 50 top social media influencers in UK higher education (I was eligible because, though I don’t live in the UK any more, I still maintain strong informal and formal ties). It’s always nice to have one’s ego stroked, and mine was purring like a satisfied kitten for some time:  the accompanying photo of one of my kittens gives a rough rendition of my state of mind. Also, I am very Kittenthankful to those that nominated and supported me: thank you all! None-the-less, I have somewhat mixed feelings about both of these. Partly, it’s just because of embarrassment and a general sense of lack of worthiness. I know from intimate personal experience that I am at the very least as awful as I am great.  Equally, I am acutely aware that there are very many people who do things far better than me in many significant ways in both areas, and who did not receive an award for it. But there’s more to my discomfort than that. In this post I am mostly going to focus on the teaching award, but some of these issues relate to being on the list of UK social media influencers too.

The teaching crowd vs the teaching star

The teaching award bothers me, mainly, because no teacher is or should be a stand-alone prima donna or primo uomo, least of all in a highly distributed teaching environment like that at Athabasca. At AU, and to an only slightly lesser extent elsewhere, teaching is always the work of a team, always the result of a much larger community than just that team, and never, ever, the sole domain of one individual. Students (especially), administrators, technicians, learning designers, editors, graphic artists, fellow academics, tutors, textbook authors, Wikipedia editors, Facebook friends and the collectively generated processes and culture that make the university what it is, are at the very least as significant as any one person. To give one person an award for what we all do together therefore just doesn’t make much sense. It’s particularly ironic that I should get a teaching award in the light of a great deal of my work, which for more than 15 years has been about just that – how crowds and systems teach. The individual we label as a ‘teacher’ is just a part of a much larger teaching gestalt and need not be its star. It is true that the charismatic inspirers and/or visible innovators and/or empathetic carers do tend to be the teachers we most remember and are the ones that we tend to nominate for awards. But they also tend to be, for much the same reasons,  the worst teachers for some people: love ’em or hate ’em, there’s not much in between. Truly great teachers, including all those that make up the gestalt, often disappear into the background. My friend and mentor Richard Mitchell wanted a t-shirt slogan for education conferences that summed it up nicely: ‘shut up and let them learn’ (I don’t know if he ever had it made). The point is that it should never be about teachers teaching: it’s always about learners learning, and there are many ways to support that, most of the best of which are driven by the learners, not the teachers. Teachers that do that well are not always the ones that get the awards.

Competition vs caring

I was a bit disconcerted to learn on the day of the award ceremony that my faculty has been competitively pushing its staff for these awards over a period of years so, for some, this was less about celebrating excellence than winning. I don’t think academia needs to be nor should it be gamified: it has far more than enough of that already. If these contests were simple games with clear rules that made winning and losing unequivocal and fair, I would be fine with it. But, outside such a clearly game-like context, competition is not good for motivation – whether you are a winner or a loser – and it is often destructive to communities. Like performance-related pay and grades (deeply flawed ideas), it can all too easily make the award into the goal, which takes away the love of the activity itself as well as shaping how we perform it. This can very easily turn into a bit of behaviourist nonsense that can drive action in the short term but weaken interest in the long term. It is fundamentally unfair, too, which can cause unnecessary tension and divisions in a community that, by its nature, needs to work together to a common goal that everyone plays an important part in reaching. Giving an award is also an expression of power: a bit of behavioural shaping done to us, not with us, the use of award committees and panels notwithstanding. At the AU awards ceremony our leaders told us how proud they were of us. They meant this very kindly, and were simply following a traditional pattern and doing the right thing for the ritual purposes of the event, but it’s not a good idea. Sure, feel pride to be part of a great learning community, show interest in what we do, care about what we do together. Yes, by all means, celebrate the good things we have done, all of us, but not that we, as individuals, are therefore good. That’s too much like patting a dog on the head for behaving the way we want him to behave.

A better way?

What really made my ego purr was not the award itself but reading the generous things kind colleagues and students wrote about me in support of the nomination. Those brought tears to my eyes, and that’s what I am really grateful for.  So, rather than giving one person an award, which seems a bit arbitrary and divisive, I think it would make far more sense that we should all regularly nominate at least one other person for acclaim, but that we should scrap giving an actual award or, if we must, should give it to everyone or a large group. The really valuable part, from a personal perspective, is not the award as such but the kindness and affirmation from friends, students and colleagues. It’s also really nice to give such acclaim. Everyone’s a winner.

The value of awards

For all my misgivings, I think that awards do have real value, especially to those that are not in the competition themselves. Awards are good ways to make concrete the values that we (or, at least, the givers of the awards) deem to be significant. By giving an award for teaching, AU is signalling the importance of teaching to its employees and to the rest of the world, and that’s a message worth sending. Similarly for Jisc, its influential position means that it got a lot of attention for not just the contest but, more significantly, the criteria for success in that contest.  That is really valuable. Social media activities are seldom given much weight when deciding on promotions or research excellence in academia, but they should be. By far the most significant measure of success in academia is whether our work increases the knowledge in the world, whether through research or teaching or dialogue, and social media are a great means of doing that. The most popular of my papers and books have been read by a few thousand people, and most have been read by far fewer than that. My biggest keynotes have addressed less than a thousand people, and some conference papers have reached no more than a few dozen readers and attendees. Some of my blog posts and shared bookmarks have had tens of thousands of readers, and most are read by thousands. There are different measures of quality for such things, for sure: most of my posts are far more like presentations intended to spark ideas than rigorous papers and books and I doubt that any have ever been cited in academic literature. But, though not rivaling peer-reviewed papers, that is still useful, I think, for exactly the reasons it is useful to attend conference presentations and, in the same way, each one is an opportunity to interact directly. Blog posts themselves may not always have much academic clout compared with peer reviewed papers but, sometimes, the dialogue that develops around them can become an incredibly significant artefact in itself, much like the glosses on mediaeval manuscripts, entering depths that can put most peer review to shame. Perhaps the Jisc list will catalyze further social media activity among those who feel that their time is better spent publishing work in journals with high impact factors and low readership. Perhaps it will encourage those outsiders to investigate what those of us who care about such things are sharing. Perhaps it will act as a pre-filter to help them to find stuff worth reading. Perhaps it will inspire innovative uses of the tools and spread good practices. Perhaps it is a good thing to simply assert that there is a community that we are part of. Awards can be catalysts for change, builders of community, and organizers of values. That’s good.

There is, too, some value in recognizing the value of people and what they do for whatever reason. I find it odd that, as well as awards for specific activities, AU gives long service awards. That rather implies that staying here might have been an achievement in itself, which further implies that it might have been a chore to stick it out for so long. That’s not a good message – I’m here because I want to be here, not because I feel I must – and it is made worse by adding a reward for it. To be fair it is, quite literally, a token reward, of a few dollars to spend in the AU store and a pin. But, as carrots go, that’s likely worse than no carrot at all: it sends both a message that it is an extrinsic reward – akin to a payment – and that we are not worth very much. I reckon a bit of applause and a hand-shake is more than enough acknowledgement without muddying the waters with cold hard cash. As a ritual, though, celebrating the simple fact of our continuing community is very worthwhile. Not only is it an opportunity to meet and eat with colleagues in person – a rare thing at AU – it’s an affirmation of the value of the community itself. We need such rituals and celebrations of togetherness.

And that is, I think, the most profound value of awards in general. They are, arguably, counter-productive as ways to drive good practice or encourage better behaviour in those that compete for them. But the ceremonies associated with them and the shared values that they represent bind all of us. They symbolize what we endeavour to be, they signal the values that we cherish, they exclude those outside the community and thus contribute to the community’s internal cohesion, albeit at a potential cost of competition. On balance, for all the complexities and risks, that’s not a bad thing.

I am a professional learner, employed as a Full Professor at Athabasca University, where I research lots of things broadly in the area of learning and technology and teach mainly in the School of Computing & Information Systems, of which I am the Chair.
I am married, with two grown-up children, and live in beautiful Vancouver.

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