Mary Willingham: the courageous and subversive act of pedagogic research

I hadn't heard of Mary Willingham until today. Her story has been the US education news for a few days now.

One of the risks of researching something is that you often find something out. When that research is into what actually goes on in a university the results can be unpalatable. Pedagogic research is often looked down upon, but in many respects it is the form of research that requires most courage.

Mary Willingham works in the Center for Student Success and Academic Counseling at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Over the course of her experience she came to notice that many student athletes were struggling with basic reading skills. She could have said nothing at all or merely harboured prejudice based on anecdote; instead her research into the reading levels of student athletes (and publication of the results) has brought condemnation from her university senior management, including according to CNN a demotion.

Those us in the UK (and elsewhere in the world) find it difficult to understand the concept of a university in which sports are such a great deal. Games are televised and watched by thousands of people. 80,000 plus seater stadia are not unknown. Athletics is seen as both a money spinner and community outreach. Some universities and college accept students who would not otherwise be qualified based on their abilities in particular sports. The [American] football coach is often the highest paid employee at the whole university. The Chronicle of Higher Education forums are a source of many stories about pressure from sports coaches to be lenient on students who have not done the work required or not done as much as they should.

But sports is not really my point here.

Mary Willingham’s experience illustrates that research into the activities of the universities, especially learning and teaching can be a courageous, even subversive act, which may have high personal costs. Real courage on the part of university management would be to encourage and applaud research into those things which happen every day in our universities.

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