Me preparing for a course in 2016

The Reluctant Researcher — A Passionate but Disgruntled Teacher

In the previous blog, I mentioned the problems of the Institute that I worked in. The important question that implicitly arise out of it is, what does the Institute need. In this blog, I will write my own personal feelings and opinions, which may or may not be backed by scientific evidence but are certainly my very honest opinions and feelings. I will love to get feedback on this blog as well about my thoughts.

As evident in my previous writings, my world view was greatly influenced by my 8 long years sojourn in Sweden. I was highly impressed by their education system. The undergraduate and graduate program were excellent with a very strong focus on learning by doing with very well developed labs (both equipment and lab literature). They had a very sound model of responsibilities for a faculty member. If one faculty member wants to conduct research than he must acquire external funding to finance ones salary as well as that of his PhD students. Young researchers/faculty members were given research funding by the university. Since the external funding finances the salary, the faculty member had minimal responsibility with regards to teacher.

However, if one is not able to acquire funding then there were two options. Either leave or focus on teaching as the salary will then be paid by the department/university/group etc. But this is not the end of story. The university had the realization that it needs dedicated people who excel at teaching and creating a learning environment for the students, who constantly researched about different pedagogical techniques and the state-of-the-art in their respective discipline and constantly upgraded and improved their courses.

That meant, some faculty members dedicated themselves to teaching. There was no clear teaching/research track for faculty members, yet some faculty members were dedicated towards their teaching and were appraised based on their contribution towards teaching, not on a lack of producing publications. This contributed to the richness of the learning culture there with students taking learning as fun and making the most of it, while the research based faculty focusing on more graduate courses and bringing the flavor of their research in their respective courses. However, the undergraduate program stood on the broad shoulders of these teaching focused faculty members.

When I applied for a position at the Institute, I realized that it only had an undergraduate program and would provide me an opportunity to apply what I had learned and observed in Sweden. Even during my initial presentation as part of my interview, I dedicated half of it on project based learning, a key component towards excellent teaching and learning in my university in Sweden.

Furthermore, having gone through an undergraduate program in Pakistan myself and heard numerous horror stories about the standard of undergraduate program in it, I was determined to correct all the wrongs that were committed towards my education in my undergraduate years. And with the Institute in its infancy, it provided a perfect experimental ground for me to improve the teaching and learning experience of students there while working on my pedagogical skills as well.

I would like to add here that I did initially maintained a pretense of doing research and partly worked towards it as well. However, with the Institute only having undergraduate students, it was imperative I worked hard on my pedagogical skills, an example of which is the display picture where I was reading the text book, which for some reason even the students do not read, for the first course assigned to me at the Institute and was greatly appreciated by a fellow colleague, who was himself an excellent teacher.

And this was another challenge, almost everyone in the Institute at the time of my joining were excellent teachers who worked really hard towards enriching the learning experience of the students and I had to work hard to be at their level. But that meant sparing a lot of hours towards achieving that goal and very little hours towards doing research (and I was short of concrete research ideas as well, which I must admit). Furthermore, I started enjoying teaching as well which certainly made the job a lot easier and I was able to bring a lot of passion and heart into my teaching, something I was never able to put into research.

As I joined the Institute, another challenge reared its head. The Institute started transitioning from being an associate college of university in the UK to to being an affiliate college of a local government run university of Pakistan which was one of the oldest and famous of the country. As part of the UK university, a number of materials including lab manuals and lecture slides were made available for us, which certainly made lives easy and one can focus on one’s own delivery and knowledge sharing skills, though I always made my own lecture slides which can synchronize with my delivery during the lecture. However, the local university provided no such material and everything had to be prepared from scratch. The only thing provided were course outlines giving us a broad idea of the contents and the extent of each course.

Having been through such a rich experience in Sweden, I always believed that lectures and tutorials during the class sessions must be strongly complemented by strong lab sessions and one the key components of the lab experience is a well thought out lab manuals containing all relevant details for the student and different exercises to be practically performed to really enhance his learning. I even brought lab manuals from Sweden for inspiration and guidance.

This transition meant that just during my second year at the Institute, I was handed over to teach courses of the local university. Teaching any course for the first time always takes that bit of extra time but teaching a new course for the first time takes a whole lot of extra time. I ended up spending all my team preparing lectures, assessments, lab manuals, grading and providing students feedback. The quality of the work and effort I put in was internally appreciated by every one and people took inspiration from my work and students also provided encouraging feedback.

Furthermore, the Institute was gearing itself for another, much bigger transition of becoming a degree awarding institute itself. Now we were not just meant to prepare new courses but also prepare a whole new curriculum based on the ethos, attributes, skills, ethical and moral values which we wanted to instill in our students. I took an active and proud part in team working towards it which was led by a very inspirational human being. I eventually went on to become the main man responsible (being the HoD of electrical engineering department) for coming up with the curriculum of the undergraduate program in electrical engineering which was consistent with the larger vision of the Institute. I was certainly not alone and the whole community of my fellow colleagues whole hardheartedly worked towards the common goal.

This led to hours of meetings and head scratching, both within the wider institute and the department. Since we were not experts on curriculum development, we had to constantly seek feedback from those who were. Curriculum itself is just the final outcome of the whole process and we had to ensure our process was sound proof and based on scientific literature. All of this exercise was conducted in parallel with teaching at least two courses per semester along with the labs. And I was proud of the time and effort I put in because finally I was able to realize the desire I had at the time of joining the Institute, i.e., contributing towards a strong undergraduate program in Pakistan.

However, the mantra of research and publication was never lost on the higher management, specially our management committee which made decisions about our Institute from another city. As I mentioned in my previous blog post, the pretentious focus on the quantity of publications was very frustrating. There were continuous talks of rankings and what not, failing to realize that even universities likes LUMS and NUST, with well established research culture, huge budgets and successful undergraduate, graduate and post-graduate programs find it hard to break into the top 400 of word rankings (At the time of writing NUST has a global ranking of 400, LUMS between 701 and 750 and UET Lahore between 800 and 1000).

Whenever we protested, it was always made to be that we did not want to do research. This tug of war resulted in shorter contracts and low increments for the most vocal of us. Personal grudges of those in the parent city were reflected in their decisions.

It is easy for me to claim that I put in a huge effort. I understand that I cannot be trusted to provide an honest feedback about myself, but this feedback was given to me by my immediate bosses, like the head of the department or the dean and my fellow senior and junior colleagues. However, despite that, I was only given a one year extension on an already short initial two year contract (on which I was satisfied as my career as an academic was just starting).

I was living so far from my home city that for me I was almost living abroad and that too in a remote area in the middle of no where, with minimal health and educational facilities for me and my family. And on top of that receiving only a one year contract extension completely fizzled out all the passion and desire I had to work hard for the Institute and I started looking for opportunities else where.

Although the desire and passion drained away, I tried to be as honest as possible towards the Institute and continued to put in hard work. I eventually went on to even head the department of electrical engineering for a good 10 months but hard work becomes much harder when there is a lack of passion and desire. We would eventually end up getting a degree awarding status and produced a curriculum which was thorough, in line with modern technological requirements yet having a strong emphasis on the foundations, both technical and social with the aim of producing well rounded individuals who not only are knowledgeable about their field but also about life in general.

And then I left. I had come to realize that the effort I was putting will not be appreciated by those in the seats of power whose above mentioned mantra was growing stronger by the day. I realized that my lack of research will always hurt me. And there is no denying the fact that for an academician, the thing that matters the most, unfortunately, is the number of publications. No one will appreciate the work I and my colleagues put in the development of the Institute and I have seen that in my fellow colleagues, who have put their heart and soul to the project of the Institute yet are not appreciated within the Institute and their lack of research has hurt them in the wider academic world.

I never wanted to be a publication machine, producing low quality research and focusing on just the quantity. I wanted to do impactful research and thus started looking for post-doctoral research fellowships. And by the grace of the Al-Mighty, I was finally able to land a position with an aim to diversify my career and product research which can have a wide ranging impact. More on this later.

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A reluctant researcher, making the transition to industry. Opinions expressed in my posts are mine and not of my employer.

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Syed Asad Alam

Syed Asad Alam

A reluctant researcher, making the transition to industry. Opinions expressed in my posts are mine and not of my employer.

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