Un­leash­ing in­ner crit­ics: John War­ren on in­tro­duc­ing feed­back in Pa­pua New Guinea

In Pa­pua New Guinea, feed­back is com­pli­cated by schol­ars’ fears about re­venge and stu­dents’ re­spect for el­ders, says John War­ren

THE (Times Higher Education) - - CONTENTS - John War­ren is vice-chan­cel­lor of the Pa­pua New Guinea Univer­sity of Nat­u­ral Re­sources and En­vi­ron­ment.

Mino laik tokim bosman ol samt­ing i bagarap. Trans­lated from Pa­pua New Guinean pid­gin English, this means some­thing like: “I don’t want to tell the boss that things are bug­gered.” For all the un­fa­mil­iar lan­guage, the con­cept is al­most uni­ver­sally recog­nis­able.

Since be­com­ing bosman bi­long yu­ni­vesiti (vice-chan­cel­lor) of a small univer­sity in the Me­lane­sian na­tion, I have dis­cov­ered that much of what hap­pens here is sur­pris­ingly fa­mil­iar. Many of the prob­lems that aca­demics face are sim­i­lar to those con­fronting schol­ars in any West­ern univer­sity, only more ex­treme. But that greater ex­trem­ity is enough to shed new light on fa­mil­iar issues. A fine ex­am­ple of this is cap­tur­ing and re­spond­ing to the stu­dent voice.

Con­struc­tive feed­back is a key com­po­nent in the process of re­flec­tion and re­vi­sion nec­es­sary to drive im­prove­ment in both uni­ver­si­ties and stu­dents. It may often be un­spo­ken, but uni­ver­si­ties en­ter a covenant with their stu­dents. We of­fer them feed­back on their aca­demic work so that they can im­prove, while stu­dents in­creas­ingly re­cip­ro­cate and ex­press their views about the ed­u­ca­tion that they are re­ceiv­ing. In re­cent years, screeds have been writ­ten about the na­ture of this bond, with many aca­demics be­liev­ing that the stu­dent voice has be­come far too pow­er­ful.

Here in Pa­pua New Guinea, the stu­dent voice is tra­di­tion­ally more likely to be ex­pressed through a war cry than through a stu­dent sat­is­fac­tion sur­vey. Last year, for in­stance, vi­o­lent clashes with the au­thor­i­ties re­sulted in a stu­dent be­ing shot and killed.

It should never re­quire a death to fo­cus minds, how­ever. There are a host of good rea­sons for try­ing to cap­ture stu­dent views, and this is what we have be­gun to do at my in­sti­tu­tion.

Good prac­tice also re­quires that after in­tro­duc­ing a new ex­er­cise you re­flect and try to de­ter­mine if you have achieved your de­sired out­come. There­fore, six months after in­tro­duc­ing the idea of stu­dent feed­back, we in­vited a panel of Aus­tralian aca­demics to visit us to ask our staff and stu­dents what they thought about giv­ing and re­ceiv­ing feed­back. Their find­ings were il­lu­mi­nat­ing.

In a land that boasts 1,000 tribes and 800 dif­fer­ent lan­guages, it is naive to talk about tra­di­tional prac­tice. How­ever, one an­cient cul­tural norm dic­tates that younger gen­er­a­tions do not crit­i­cise older ones. In many vil­lage com­mu­ni­ties, re­spect for el­ders and tribal lead­ers is much stronger than in the West. Hence, our stu­dents re­ported a re­luc­tance to crit­i­cise their teach­ers, while aca­demics ad­mit­ted to feel­ing threat­ened by the em­pow­er­ment of stu­dents.

But there is another prob­lem that pushes in a rather dif­fer­ent di­rec­tion. Fam­ily, community and tribal bonds all re­main very strong here, while the con­cept of na­tion­hood is still fairly new and alien. Staff and stu­dents openly so­cialise within re­gional group­ings. There are pos­i­tive as­pects to this: mu­tual sup­port net­works are highly ef­fec­tive. But it also gives rise to an en­demic nepo­tism – known here as wan­tok­ism, from “one talk”: speak­ing the same lan­guage or be­ing from the same tribe.

Hence, the feed­back talks of aca­demics show­ing favouritism to­wards cer­tain stu­dents, and of re­venge be­ing taken by stu­dents who feel hard done by. While these are ex­treme cases, it is clear that feed­back is re­spected and em­braced only if the per­son pro­vid­ing the feed­back is also re­spected.

In an­swer­ing a ques­tion about anony­mous mark­ing, two of our aca­demics mis­in­ter­preted the ques­tion. Their as­sump­tion was that it was the anonymity of the marker that re­quired pro­tec­tion, to en­sure that they were not tar­geted by venge­ful stu­dents un­happy with the grades awarded.

This re­ver­sal of the com­mon as­sump­tion may ini­tially ap­pear com­i­cal, but surely there are plenty of West­ern aca­demics who have felt threat­ened by com­ments made by stu­dents. I cer­tainly reg­u­larly re­call com­ments writ­ten about me on feed­back forms many years ago, partly be­cause they were witty but also be­cause their barbs still cling to my flesh. In more ex­treme ex­am­ples, I have en­coun­tered West­ern aca­demics shred­ding piles of feed­back forms be­cause they con­sid­ered them con­temptible.

We may not want to ad­mit that there is an “us ver­sus them” men­tal­ity be­tween staff and stu­dents in the West, but it may be worth ask­ing whether mag­ni­fy­ing the stu­dent voice with­out also pro­vid­ing stu­dents with train­ing in pro­vid­ing con­struc­tive crit­i­cism helps to build mu­tual re­spect or drives trib­al­ism.

Aca­demics are ex­pected to be the adults and to take harsh crit­i­cism in their stride. But it is not that easy. My ex­pe­ri­ence here has con­vinced me that, through­out the world, there should be a rou­tine process of in­duc­tion that cov­ers the giv­ing and re­ceiv­ing of feed­back for ev­ery co­hort of stu­dents, which also fully in­te­grates aca­demic staff.

In any lan­guage, it is al­ways dif­fi­cult telling the bosman (or bosmeri: boss­woman) that there are things that they could be do­ing to im­prove. But, equally, it is not al­ways easy for the bosman to hear it.

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