My Three Years in Academia!


The story started when I was out of work after the company we started collapsed within a year. I was depressed, felt like a failure and didn’t know what to do with those 12 hours of my day which I used to spend at work (which proves that workaholics have no social life). My masters was done too and I didn’t want to get into further education (the idea is still appealing but I chicken out every freaking time). It was my fourth year in the Tech industry. I got a call from a friend and he said that some private university (it shouldn’t even be called a university) is looking for a part time lecturer and if I am free, I can go teach there for few hours every week. My reaction wasn’t very polite but he kind of convinced me to go meet the professor there. I went and was extremely disappointed with his hostile and sexist behavior.

Let me explain why I said that. I met someone in a dingy office, surrounded by piles of unsorted papers, using an outdated computer, looking like a troll from some fairytale, sipping tea and asking me things like,
“Why do you want to teach after working in the industry?"
"Are you getting married? Why do women even get a job in the first place?”
“Oh! You made this much money in your job before your company, we pay this to assistant professors.”
“Why did your company fail? I don’t think it’s a good idea to hire someone who failed at something.”
“You are a graduate from NEDUET, did you know so and so?”
“I want you to teach this course, prepare one chapter and come tomorrow”.
I was pissed or maybe pissed is a small word, not because he said I was a failure but because even after knowing my expertise, he refused to give me anything relevant and gave me a course that nobody wanted to teach from his own faculty. I called him later that day and excused myself from this mess.

Time passed and I got some great work contracts not only local but international and my career moved forward. Next year came and I went to my university for an event, during the discussion, someone mentioned the gap between academia and industry and asked me why industry people don’t want to invest time in academia. I told them how I have been contributing for years (I was giving training to undergrads as a volunteer at my university) now and that academia is a little more hostile for our taste. The discussion turned from there to hiring professionals for teaching courses that require practical skills rather than using old text books for theoretical discussions and I told them how I was shunned out last year and that our presence is threatening for the teachers who have no exposure and actual skills. The debate went on and I was challenged to do better because I was the one doing most of the criticism (sigh!).

I tried again, this time while on a job in a local company as a Project Manager, in a very well-known private university, the interviews went well but when it came to contract negotiations, I was told that industry experience is of no value, so I shouldn’t expect more than half of my current salary. This time, I was prepared for this and I told them I can’t. I thought my story with academia ended there, but it was just the beginning.

Fast forward to 2014, I left my job, started my own consultation company and was selected for Womenx Pakistan, I spoke at a couple of universities on Software Quality and Technology Management Practices, during those visits, I saw how far away these students were from practical knowledge (just like old times) and what a rip off these universities are (private sector I mean), I thought about trying once again (you can now see that my mama didn’t raise a quitter). I talked to one senior academic who was running a private university’s campus that I want to teach an entry level CS course to undergrads, he welcomed me and I was in!

And the nightmare just began and I want to give you a little sneak peek!
This rant has nothing to do about any university in particular, rather my exposure into academia after that entry, it’s been almost three years and I am still teaching because with time, I have fallen in love with it even more. This is about what I have observed and seen after meeting with all sorts of academics and some of my experience at my own Alma mater.

Let’s talk about the hiring process first (not talking about public universities, I am expecting it to be as shoddy as the one I am describing below).

I have yet to see a proper written hiring criteria from anywhere or a proper HR department, but usually they hire people on the basis of the number of degrees, their Alma mater, references, their past teaching experience and number of research papers, their race and/or their political affiliation, etc. In the list, you won’t find even a single criteria that is actually about the job itself, i.e., teaching. In interviews, they will ask questions related to subject matter and the main focal point is on joining terms that includes salary and other benefits. Some universities rope in professors that promise to bring better funding for research purposes. I know about a couple of places that ask for demo lectures and ask their faculty to sit in for judging the performance, again, this doesn’t make sense. A teacher’s ability to teach can only be seen in full when he/she is interacting with students and teaching them new and improved concepts, also, these demo are specifically for lecture-style teaching, not really fit for group discussions and case studies, etc. For part-time teaching contracts, they decide to hire after their permanent faculty is overloaded with more than their fair share of teaching hours, so they pick whoever is available rather than properly interviewing the candidate. Point to note here, professional working experience is not a factor anywhere, so yeah, so much for academia/industry gap.

The next logical step is the assignment of courses in each semester. Now this process is another nightmare because if you take a look at HEC curriculum (I am talking about CS/SE/IT in particular), you will find a mix and match of both ancient and new subjects, some of the courses even overlap (which I don’t know why). The 2012-2013 curriculum has some specialized courses that require hands-on workshops and practical skills to teach rather than just knowing things after consulting with Google or an outdated textbook. These courses become a problem for both our universities and students, for universities, their regular teacher is scared of taking it up and if they do take it, administration receives complains from students. When they try and hire people from the industry, their hostile attitude and unfair terms shun people away.

They also don’t have any mechanism to match courses with faculty’s expertise so most of the assignment is haphazard and teachers get courses that don’t match their interest or expertise. In past three years, I was approached from multiple places for left over courses that were not my area and whenever I refused, I heard more or less the following statements.
“Didn’t you study that in your undergrad/grad years?”
“We will give you the book and you can read for classes if you like.”
“You should be able to teach everything, it’s a job, you can’t be picky.”
My response was always the same, sorry, I can’t. I wanted to say more but out of respect or professionalism I couldn’t. Also, they will give you call a day before the semester is starting for this discussion, no processes whatsoever!

Another issue is the hourly remuneration, I ran a quick survey on how much they pay a visiting faculty to teach an hour and it started from somewhere 6USD per hour to 25USD per hour in most universities. As they say, if you pay peanuts, you get monkeys. Or in another case, you get crazy people like me (with better sources of income and want to teach for the heck of it) who turn out to be absolute pain in the ass!

Many teachers take more courses than what is required from them by their position (12 hours for lectures, 9 for assistant professors, 6 for associate professors and 3 for full professors usually) so that they can be paid well, which creates an immense burden for them and they can’t deliver good content. They are forced to produce research papers so that their university can improve it's ranking (another fraud, read about it herehere and here) and most of the times, they don't have proper facilities available for productive work. 

Some universities like NEDUET has fixed semester schedules but in most private universities, students can pick courses on their own. I can recount the horrifying things I have heard from my students about picking courses and completing pre-requisites, but I will let this topic slide (for now!).

I have a lot to say about the course outlines too but maybe some other day!

HEC has a curriculum that is publicly available, if you want to take a look for CS/SE/IT, you can check here.

As we have talked earlier, that the hiring criteria has little to no regard to the actual job, the teaching standard gets down the drain naturally. In my 6.5 years NEDUET (BS and MS), the number of lousy teachers surpassed the number of good teachers I have seen in my whole life. Most of them had no clue about the subject matter (because courses are usually not assigned on the basis of expertise), had serious attitude issues, hated teaching or had an extremely inflated sense of self. It’s not unusual for our students to bear sexist/racist remarks in class from the teachers and listen to things that has nothing to do with the course or their professional training/grooming. As I run a community for local Women in Technology, a lot of times we see students coming up with stories of sexism at their universities and inappropriate behavior from teachers. Teaching is an art which requires a lot of patience and compassion, when we hire people who have neither, we see students suffering and no value being delivered.

Sexism in Academia is a topic for another day (I promise!). 

In all around the world, we see people with exceptional worth ethics are chosen to teach the younger generation, in our country, people who can’t find any work, get into academia. Most of these academics have never done anything other than getting their own degrees and then reiterating the same content in front of their own students. It may work for other fields but Information Technology is more about skills than anything else that is why you see the gap between academia and industry (if one more academic will complain to me about this gap, I am going to lose it!).

Paper setting and grading, semester projects and other course work also need some hard reforms. HEC has setup National Computing Education Accreditation Council (NCEAC) for improving the standard of local tech universities but there are way too many loopholes in it. Will rant about it some other time!


Here comes the most controversial topic of all, Performance Management. This topic has been discussed over and over again and we have seen some steps being taken in to improve the situation but most of these steps backfired (HEC’s 2002 reforms, NCEAC, etc.).

Universities give promotions on the basis of research papers laid by the professors (I have used that word deliberately because I have seen professors producing paper like chickens lay eggs, for more on this check Dr. Hoodbhoy's article) and at the same time collect feedback from students. Now these feedback forms are usually anonymous (if they are collected digitally, they aren’t), these forms have some specific criteria for rating a teacher and a remarks box to write anything else. I have filled these forms at my university and have seen the ones given to students at the places I have taught. Questions are usually about course content, teacher’s punctuality and English speaking ability, students are required to rate a teacher on a scale and add remarks if they like. This feedback is usually collected at the end of semester but sometimes, in the middle too. I have yet to see any SOP(s) for compiling this feedback and using it for any kind of performance management. You will hear from students that no action has ever been taken on these feedback forms but we all have heard and seen that private universities usually treat their students like customers, if this is true, why don’t they take any action on student’s feedback?

Let me break it down for you a little more. Academia is as political as the first political party that comes to your mind and is as honest as the best con artist. You will find professors with strong relationships with their mafia gang leaders (using Dr. Hoodbhoy’s terms, see his article here) with low ratings getting promotions because a) Promotion has nothing to do with teaching (remember HEC’s 2002 reforms), b) because this feedback is visible only to the professor and the department’s head, nobody else knows about it, so no action is taken, c) Professors with a cunning streak give good marks to students on the basis of favoritism, personal relationships and flattery, so both parties benefit from this partnership and the ratings get better.



Most of these private universities have no proper admission criteria implemented, the entry test is just a couple of MCQs (copied from different websites), interviews are just introductions and they take in students who barely passed their intermediate for undergrad degrees in Technology/Engineering. Sometimes students who couldn't even clear their entry test get admission because university wants to fill up the available seats. 

Let's keep it for another day and move on to some some excellent suggestions from Pervez Hoodbhoy’s article on judging a teacher's performance:
  • Judging even one individual’s teaching quality within a single department of a single university is difficult. Preferences based upon religion, sect, ethnicity, and friendships would make such selections meaningless and create new groupings. Similarly, determining who is fit to teach at the university level is controversial. Surely one size cannot fit all. From field to field, and place to place, the answers can be quite different.
  • But even if there is no perfect answer the bottom line is indisputable: a professor cannot teach what he doesn’t know and has no interest in. There has to be some system for weeding out those utterly unfit to teach.
  • One could exploit the fact that there are plenty of excellent textbooks used internationally which have chapter-end problems and exercises with definite answers. Being able to correctly solve some reasonable fraction of these questions could be one criterion.
  • HEC could insist that all applicants to a university teaching position pass the examination requirements of appropriate distance learning courses (MOOCS) such as those prepared by Coursera, Stanford or MIT. With biometric checking and proper exam proctoring, this may be a cheap, neutral, bias-free assessment of a candidate’s suitability.
Professors who are committed to their work and are a little strict with course work and deadlines are considered a nuisance and you will find majority of the students bitching about them. They know that they are customers and they will get the degree sooner or later so the idea of actually working hard towards better grades is alien to them. These professors won’t get fired for the feedback and I think these are the ones that are holding up the weight of this collapsing system.  

“The impact on genuine academics — the ones who maintain professional standards and refuse to lie or cheat — has been devastating. In particular, many young ones lose heart when incompetent colleagues race ahead in promotions, receive wads of cash for publishing junk papers, rise to top administrative positions, and be nominated for national awards and prizes.”
Again, the idea is not to blame a single entity but to highlight the problems that are there and we all will be affected by them one way or the other. Universities and their managements, professors, students and Tech industry all are contributing less towards betterment and are busy in finding an easy way out from this mess. I have been working on some pointers for this and I would love to share them with all of you who made it this far (you all are heroes and I owe you one!).

I would also recommend you to read Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy’s articles in Dawn about the problems that I have mentioned. He is an excellent academic and a person with integrity and his recent article published on Saturday actually pushed me to write this whole rant.

I know I have made so many people really furious with this rant and people will start checking my LinkedIn to see my teaching contracts with universities. I also have a very clear idea that I am very less likely to get any contracts in the future, but I am okay with that. I am already doing my part in working for a better system by getting into the system but it’s too big and complicated for me to break or change. I have made allies on the way, but they too are under great pressure and the most daunting pressure is to keep their employment because they have families to feed.  

The first step towards improvement is to identify and acknowledge that we have problems. A single blog can't cover everything but I have tried my level best to include the things that were on my top priority and I want to keep writing about the issues and the potential strategies that can help us resolve these issues. This whole effort is just my opinion over things that I have experienced and observed, you may or mayn't agree with it and it is totally fine. We can be civil to each other even when we disagree on something. Some of you may find my writing style immature or aggressive, or my use of words vulgar but this is who I am and it is a personal blog! 

Academia is one of the pillars of modern society and when it gets corrupted, there is little hope for our collective self. If we as teachers won't understand the implication of our actions and the importance of integrity and work ethics, there is no hope for the future generation! 

Comments

  1. You an inspiration Faiza. Also the points you have raised about our Academia are very valid and must be actioned upon.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Welcome to the club. Please check out my blog for more issues that are worth writing about syedirfanhyder.blogspot.com

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you Dr. Irfan. I will definitely check it. Would love to talk to you about it and discuss few ideas.

      Delete
  3. It is so scary, unfortunate and disgusting how I can relate to each and everything that you wrote. It breaks my heart to see people corrupt academia, just pick any profession, leave this one alone. Because if you corrupt the education system, nothing else can save the society. But there's still a little hope somewhere and a sense of relief that myself and only a handful of my colleagues aren't the only ones. I'm glad we have people like you, who not only stand their ground, make sure to do the right thing but also call out the culprits. You're a true inspiration Faiza and one of the few people I look up to in this profession. Keep up the great work, it'll pay off Insha'Allah!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you so much. Let's talk about it further. I want to develop a plan which we can propose to the people who are in charge. I'm not very hopeful but I want to play my part! :)

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  4. I can't read everything, my eyes hurt. so I skimmed through, just to grab the points, and everywhere I stopped, truth is all I found.
    Not a lot of people have to courage to stand against wrongdoings and corrupt.
    What you are doing, is much more than any teacher is willing to do. Keep it up and surely you'll find a way. The part you're playing is for the greater cause. :)
    I will help in any way I can with the little knowledge I have.

    ReplyDelete

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