Beginning University Teaching

Like conference papers, teaching is something that you may well be expected to begin early on in your career as a researcher, most likely from the second year of your Ph.D. onwards, though rarely earlier than this. It is needless to say that there are numerous teaching strategies out there, and that their suitability depends on the individual lecturer, the discipline and subject which are taught, and of course the students whom you teach. So, as always, and I know I am repeating myself here, this is a post of ideas and tips rather than a steadfast guide. Nevertheless, there are certain aspects of the university teaching experience that I’d like to focus on in particular and which I think are the most relevant to those beginning their careers as lecturers and tutors:

There is an awful lot to say about teaching, but I’m hoping to keep this fairly short and snappy (in hindsight, I haven’t quite succeeded – sorry!). As always, if there is anything that this post does not cover and which you’d like to have addressed, simply use the comments section to let me know – I love hearing from you all, even if you disagree with me! If I can’t help, I’m sure we can find someone who can.

PRACTICALITIES OF TEACHING: WHEN? WHY? WHAT? WHERE?

When

– No earlier than second Ph.D. year; settle into research first.
– Get teaching experience before you finish your doctorate.

Why

– Experience for other careers (communication and admin skills).
– Essential experience for academic post.

What

– Within and outside of your research area (but within reason, of course).
– It’s good to show you can teach a broad range of modules and levels.
– If you have the opportunity to teach at MA level, take it!
– Remember: teaching the same module repeatedly only equals one line on your CV.

Where

– In the first instance, your own department.
– Send CV and expression of interest to other (local) departments during the summer.
– Teaching elsewhere = good experience; looks good on CV; broadens networks.
– Take into account time and money spent on commuting.

How much

This depends on your financial situation and the workload associated with your teaching contract. Generally speaking, ask yourself (and your prospective employer) the following questions and address the following issues:

– How many classroom hours per week? Spread over how many days?
– Seminars? Lectures? Writing lectures from scratch can take a lot of time!
– Design of seminar content: your responsibility or the module convener’s?
– Seminar sizes? This will directly translate into marking load.
– Marking? How many assignments? Exam marking?
– Are you expected to do any module admin?
– Repeat seminars? Different groups but same material.
– How may office hours are you expected to offer per week?
– Overall, your main job is still to do your Ph.D. Ensure this is possible.
– Ensure you do everything in your power to be registered on the payroll in time for your first payday.

PREPARATION & DELIVERY: LECTURES & SEMINARS

Lectures

– Tips in ‘Giving Conference Presentations’ (I + II) apply
– Don’t just read from script – engage with your students.
– Ask module leader for previous lectures you can adapt.
– Know what you want your students to learn in each lecture.
– Students’ attention drops after ca. 20min – it’s normal.
– Consider small participatory sections (i.e. ask questions).
– Be clear, be engaging, be enthusiastic, and pace yourself.
– If you say something that’s key, make it clear and repeat it.

Seminars

– Establish ground rules in first seminar. [i]
– Learn your students’ names. They’re people and deserve that you at least try.
– Ask your module leader about any student support plans (i.e. learning difficulties, etc.).
– Plan your seminars. What are the main issues you want to cover?
– On the other hand, be prepared to let discussion develop in directions you hadn’t anticipated.
– Don’t be fixated on certain answers you want to hear.
– Treat your students with respect if you want to be treated with respect.
– If possible, include small group tasks, especially if you have a quiet group.
– Bring in material that can be read and discussed even if they haven’t done the required preparation.
– Try to ensure they are comfortable. You want them to participate, so be enthusiastic and encourage them.
– Ensure you prepare students for assignments (bring in the guidelines, etc.).
– Try to include practical tasks (close reading, analysis of visual material, etc.) and clear as well as broad questions.
– Always encourage them to ask questions, especially about things they find problematic.
– Never assume a student is stupid. Look to yourself and think about how you can communicate your topic better.
– It’s ok to admit to things you don’t know – say you’ll look into it for next week.
– Everyone has imposter syndrome. It’ll go eventually.
– No matter what the topic, you can teach it and if they’ve given you the job, you are qualified to do so.
– Don’t take module evaluations personally, even if they name you.
– Keep copies of good feedback – it’ll be valuable for job applications.
– Reflect on any criticism, but don’t let your faith in yourself be dictated solely by student feedback.

BEYOND THE CLASSROOM: MARKING & PASTORAL CARE

Marking

– Speak to module leader about what is expected in the assignment.
– Ask for a sample essay from last year.
– Ensure you know the assignment guidelines.
– Have the marking descriptors next to you whilst marking.
– Be constructive. Students don’t make errors to annoy you.
– Always find something positive to say.
– Annotate their essay/ exercise as constructively as possible.
– Suggest specific improvements rather than making vague/ general comments.
– Know when assignments are due, and by which date they need to be marked and moderated.
– Know marking and moderation procedures (online/ paper; copying moderated essays; returning essays; etc.).
– Your marking has to cohere with departmental practice. Accept this and adapt to it.
– Ensure you encourage students to read the full feedback, not just their grade.
– Ensure you offer students time to discuss their feedback.
– If they are unhappy with their mark, don’t be defensive. Show them what you mean with your comments.

Pastoral Care

– Don’t assume things. You don’t know students’ circumstances, background, etc.
– Make clear they can see you if there are personal or academic issues.
– You may not be their personal tutor, but they may feel comfortable with you.
– No matter what the problem, be constructive. What can you do to help?
– You may be the only person they can speak to. Not everyone has family (nearby).
– Be aware of services to which you can refer students if you are unable to help.

WHAT TO DO WHEN THINGS GO WRONG

– Ensure you have a member of staff you can approach with any issues relating to your post.
– If you can’t approach a member of staff, speak to friends who are also teaching.
– As a GTA, voice your concerns if your thesis is coming too short (completion time matters to supervisors).
– It’s unlikely someone else hasn’t encountered your issues them before – talk about them.
– Be a good colleague, but don’t allow yourself to be exploited by other members of staff.

So now that my students have plenty of grounds on which to criticize me, we’ll move back into the realm of research next week, more particularly into to the often intimidating area of submitting your work for peer-review and publication. Having your writing criticized is never a nice prospect, especially not the first time, but I’m hoping we can go through some mechanisms which will allow you to avoid unnecessary mistakes and anxiety before submitting your work, and which will also enable you to start seeing peer-review feedback as something positive. It’s terribly exciting to have work accepted for publication, and from what my senior colleagues tell me, the feeling of relief and a certain pride doesn’t stop, no matter how many things you’ve published. So prepare for another delve into the world of your research and how it may be received by other people! Until then, and as always, thanks for reading!


[i]           My house rules are: students must be honest about whether or not they have done the preparation/ reading (it’s impossible to do an effective seminar if you’re unaware of who knows how much); this isn’t another lecture – this is their space to discuss, exchange and try out ideas; everyone is allowed to express their opinion without being interrupted (if they want others to listen, they’ll have to listen to them, too); if someone cannot attend a seminar, they must email their apologies in advance; students must do their best to contribute to the seminar discussion – don’t let others do the work for you (it’s neither fair, nor productive).

Nadine Muller

Nadine Muller

Nadine is Senior Lecturer in English Literature and Cultural History at Liverpool John Moores University. Her research covers the literary and cultural histories of women, gender, and feminism from the nineteenth century through to the present day. She is currently completing a monograph on the Victorian widow (Liverpool University Press, 2018), and is leading War Widows' Stories, a participatory research and oral history project on war widows in Britain.

You may also like...

14 Responses

  1. Alessia Williams says:

    Hi, I only just found this blog via twitter and I am starting teaching in a couple of weeks and after reading this I am much less terrified because I seemed to already know most of the things. I feel more confident that I’ll be doing this right. Thank you! 🙂 I don’t know what previous PhDs did without blogs, it’s such a great support network.

    • Nadine Muller Nadine Muller says:

      Hi Alessia! Thanks so much, and I’m so glad it’s helped a little. Everyone is nervous before they start teaching – it’s completely normal. You’ll quickly get used to it, and hopefully you’ll enjoy it, too. 🙂 I’d love to hear how your first semester goes, so please do get in touch here or via Twitter (I’m @Nadine_Muller). Best of luck!

  2. Lucy Robinson says:

    What a great post I will be sharing it will our ATs and TFs. It is interesting that the way in which so much teaching is framed is as preparation for ‘something else’ or future experience. It is however work. I wondered if it made a difference whether post-grads are teaching as part of a fee waiver or if they are being employed. My experience is that negotiating contracts for hourly paid teaching is a nightmare. There isn’t always a very close match up between what someone is being paid to do and what they are being encouraged to do for the experience. This can lead to high levels of exploitation. I always advise new ATs not to teach without having joined a Union and to be very clear what is covered in their contract and what isn’t. Is the preparation of teaching materials or lectures covered below a grade 7 for example. Of course we can choose as individuals to teach over our contract, but it has to be our choice.

    • Nadine Muller Nadine Muller says:

      Hi Lucy,

      I think teaching as a GTA and on an hourly-paid contract can be problematic. The former is particularly difficult, depending in the attitude if the department as there sometimes seems little concern for what is a sensible amount of hours for GTAs. It’s worth reminding your supervisor and colleagues that your completion time counts towards their CV and department record, too, so it’s their interest not to overload you. And being strict with yourself re not working over your contract can be difficult too. Personally, I always chose to go above and beyond what I was paid to do, but I don’t have children, am not a carer in any other capacity, and did not have to hold down any other part-time jobs outside of higher education teaching. I think as early-career academics and beyond, it’s important to always remember that time when you worked yourself into the ground on sessional contracts whilst barely being able to pay your bills; this is the time when we can ensure – and have a responsibility to do so – that we treat any sessional staff we work with fairly, and not as a worker who will do anything we don’t like doing. I think that’s the key, more generally, to achieving change from within.

  3. Sarah Gilligan says:

    Post-it-notes are a really good way of getting quiet students to contribute and as a means of checking for learning. Using them in class at the beginning of a module also potentially enables you to get a very quick snapsnot of literacy / handwriting skills.

    I often start sessions by putting a couple of open questions on the board (or via a powerpoint slide) and as students arrive and settle, I give each student a couple of post-it-notes to write their responses and either hand them back / come to the front of the room and stick them on the board, or put them onto sheets of A3 paper. By getting students to come to the front of the room it not only gets them moving about and mingling with one another, it acts as an icebreaker as they read each other’s responses and one or two post-it-notes invariably fall off the board. It also means that students are less frightened of standing in front of the group – for later sessions where I will want them to give presentations etc. Their responses can remain anonymous if needs be.

    The answers can then act as the springboard to discussion – either by you selecting particularly interesting answers and / or by collating them and distributing them as the basis of small group discussion work and peer review. I often gather and photocopy the answers to act as stimulus materials / recap materials.

    I encourage all of my students to have a packet of post-it-notes with them in sessions, as they are (to me) a useful study aid, great for writing to do lists and to help with essay planning, as well as a means of breaking the fear of the white page. Many of my students lack confidence with their writing, so it is a means of kick starting the writing process and encouraging them to think with a pen and (tiny) piece of paper in their hand.

    To me the post-it-note (or its cheaper non branded alternative) is a wonderful invention and an essential part of my teaching, research and daily life. Thank you Spencer Silver and Art Fry 🙂

    Sarah
    http://hartlepoolfe.academia.edu/SarahGilligan

    • Meryn Brown says:

      Thank you so much Sarah, that sounds a brilliant idea and I can really see it as working. I’ll definitely be using a few post-its in my next seminar and will let you know how I get on. Hopefully the students will see it as something a bit different too 🙂

      • Nadine Muller Nadine Muller says:

        I’d love to know how it works out for you, Meryn! So do share here and/or on Twitter, please! 🙂

        • Meryn Brown says:

          Sorry, for my late reply, but I found the post-it suggestion really good. I asked the students to write down significant movements/ideas relating to Polish nationalism in the nineteenth century and stick them to the whiteboard at the front. I then split the group into small groups to discuss individual movements (taking the post-it notes relating to their theme to help their discussion). I think it definitely was good in terms of encouraging all students to be more active.

          Since then I’ve also made sure that in group tasks I come up with enough questions in each sub topic to be answered individually or in pairs and emphase that I want to hear something from everyone – this seems to have worked well as well, and/or the quiet students have finally got to the stage in the semester where their confidence levels have risen enough for them to participate more
          🙂

          • Nadine Muller Nadine Muller says:

            Brilliant news, Meryn!

            Especially when it’s textual work, I often make clear that I want EVERY student in the room to have one phrase or word to analyse/ comment on after they’ve taken some time to read an extract and discuss among each other. Sometimes there’s no time for this but whenever I can I do try to come to every student in turn and ask them what their chosen phrase was and what they thought was interesting about it. The same works for paintings and other visual material.

    • EKSwitaj says:

      I love post-its too. At the start of the term, I like to have students write everything they know about the course subject on post-its and then work in small groups to organize the post-its using a system of their choice (I usually provide a few examples of organizational logic—chronological, importance, etc.). This helps them to establish a ground of knowledge to which they can chain new information, and it helps me to avoid telling them things they already know.

  4. Meryn Brown says:

    Thanks Nadine, that’s a really good post. I would love to hear people’s experience of dealing with shy international students. I have a few in one of my seminar groups and it’s really tricky to get them to engage and discuss things – even within a small group situation. They tend to just sit there in silence and I’m finding it tricky to come up with new ideas!

    • Nadine Muller Nadine Muller says:

      Hi Meryn,

      Thank you! Sarah kindly posted a really good idea – I hope it’ll help! Would love to know if it does.

      Nadine

    • Andrea Dineen says:

      A couple of suggestions for Meryn’s shy students that have worked for me…..

      1.Try the think, pair, share strategy – time to think independently, then discuss with a partner, then pair up two sets of partners for a small group of four to share. Trying your response out first on just one other person can sometimes give confidence to share in a group of four.

      2. Discuss responses with a partner (probably pair a more articulate student with a shy one if possible). When it comes time for larger group sharing, encourage students to share their partners thoughts rather than their own. So Student A would report what Student B shared in their partner discussion. This can have positive results for either partner reporting back: (1) If the shy student needs to share this takes the pressure of putting their own ideas out there, yet gives them practice at speaking in front of the larger group or (2) if the more articulate student shares the shy student can see others react (hopefully) positively to their suggestions without having to be the one to speak in front of the group themselves. This may begin to develop their confidence to share their own thoughts at some stage.

  1. 11/11/2014

    […] we’ve looked at how to communicate a topic verbally, in front of conference audiences and students. What I’d like to consider in this post is how to begin publishing your research in writing, […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox

Join other followers: