My first teaching term

By Lisa Marie Griffith

This year, 2010-2011, I am embarking on my first year lecturing. I have sat in many teaching interviews over the last few years reciting my virtues as a scholar to the interview panel and promising that I would be a wonderful teacher and gifted communicator in the hopes of convincing the often stoney faced panel to just give me a paying job. I will have to admit that the day I was finally offered a teaching job the panic set in: I would now have to deliver all of the things I had promised. There was also a second fear: after all these years believing that I would love to teach would I actually enjoy it?

Once I had admitted these niggling fears to myself I asked friends in a similar situation about how they thought they would find their first teaching job. The response was very mixed. Some believed it would just come naturally. We had spent all this time reading books and giving papers and surely with that experience once placed in front of a class of undergraduates we would just be able to do it. We knew more than the undergraduate and if we didn’t how were they to know anyone. Undergraduates put faith in the title of PhD and that would see us through.

Other friends admitted that they had similar fears but pointed to tutoring experience as something they felt would help get them through. A few friends also seemed to think my fear was ungrounded. I now had a job, someone had believed I could undertake the job, I should just get on with it! While I was definitely grateful to finally have some gainful employment, there was still a part of me feeling that I wasn’t quite as equipped as I could be. Perhaps this is just part of my personality: I am and always have been something of a worrier and my initial thought when handed a new task is always ‘Can I do this?’ and ‘What is my best way forward?’

It has been stated on numerous occasions throughout this blog’s lifetime that PhD students are given no formal training before they are set in front of a class and that leads to numerous problems. We are all familiar with these problems. it would be remarkable if you gained a degree without having sat through some insanely dull courses taught by someone who can’t communicate adequately. Academic jobs are given on the basis of publications and the reality is often that the more publications you have, and the better the quality, the less time you have had to spend on teaching. There is some guidance given but it is often inadequate.

Many Universities offer their PhD students a chance to tutor on courses and they offer them a one or two-day training course to assist them. Tutoring is certainly a worthwhile experience, it also helps with the financial burden of your PhD. Nevertheless, the experience is still very different to actual lecturing and often what each university requires of its tutor (and even some lecturers) varies vastly. Some ask tutors to set essay questions, to correct assignments, to set course documents and lay out course hand books, to give essay writing workshops or to provide work extensions. Other departments just require their tutors to show up and conduct the class. Some lecturers like tutors to attend the lectures while others explicitly ask them not to. These all provide various levels of experience but none of them are really equal to lecturing. While I have some friends who have been offered lecturing experience during their PhD this has by and large been outside the field of history which seems to be teeming to graduate students to the extent that it would be unfair to offer teaching to some and not to others.

It is of course easy to bemoan what we don’t have and considering the situation which we are facing at the moment universities are naturally on the defensive and holding on to what they have rather than branching out into providing courses on teaching to their PhD students. This will not change anytime soon. There is a fear in History departments that PhD students are seeking academic jobs and this should be discouraged at all costs. There are just not enough jobs to go around and mentors don’t want to encourage students down a path of unemployment. At the moment unemployment seems to be where we are all heading anyway.

This leads me back to my original point of my first term teaching. I spent all summer writing lectures and was looking forward to getting the first lecture over. Staring down at a 80 Irish history students my first Tuesday morning I had to very quickly admit to myself that I was not going to be brilliant at this over night. Learning a new trade, like lecturing, would take time.

Looking back over all my favourite lecturers I realised that most of them were closer to the end of their career then the beginning. What I had seen was a well-polished act. Those who were younger tended to have two things; a good Powerpoint and buckets of enthusiasm. If there is one thing I felt I could bring it was enthusiasm. I am aiming for Powerpoint which break down the key events and figures and which allow the course to have some continuity while remaining contained.

It is a little more difficult to judge my success level however. Course satisfaction surveys will be filled out at the end of next term so I am yet to be judged formally by the students. I have spoken to other new lecturers about how exactly you can judge it a lecture ‘went well’. In my first term I will admit my standards are low. I am happy to say that students stay for the lectures, no one has openly said they hate the course, they only complain when I move the slides on too quickly, I get extra questions after some lectures and on a couple of occasions I have even overheard mutterings of ‘interesting’. Nevertheless, there always seems to be someone on their phone texting or staring at the time. I have a long way to go before I can entrance them.

In attempting to keep their attention I have also learnt a few things. Students like strong images that can be broken down and explained to them and relate to the course. When discussing course content they often come back to these images. I am increasingly finding that less is more. My initial panic was that I had so much information to convey but this confuses students so like a good undergraduate essay I have to be selective in what I choose to communicate.

Most importantly and to my great relief I have discovered that I really do love teaching. I love how much I have learnt over the last six months while writing lectures and how much more I have yet to learn. I enjoy interaction with students and seeing what they enjoy learning about and what they find dull. Encouraging them to see the continuities in history and shocking them with historical events they have not encountered before is something that I relish. And hopefully next year I will get to polish my act!

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18 Responses to “My first teaching term”

  1. clairehennessy Says:

    There will always be students texting etc – they’re adults, your job is not to ‘reach’ the disenchanted ones but to educate those who want to learn. 🙂

  2. puesoccurrences Says:

    True Claire. I will have to say I was very aware of what everyone was doing for the first few weeks to try and read what they thought of me but I have started to realise that texting, staring out the window and writing notes is pretty normal. You will never have all of them paying attention. Unless perhaps you are talking about exams or essays….

  3. clairehennessy Says:

    Exam lectures = full attendance, copious note-taking! 🙂

  4. Felix Larkin Says:

    I think the key to a good lecture is that the lecturer should be enthusiastic about his/her subject. That enthusiasm communicates itself to the audience. If the lecturer is bored, then the audience will be too. A sense of humour also helps.

  5. puesoccurrences Says:

    I agree Felix. I think using humour can be sometimes be a bit of a problem. I stand a little closer to the subject then undergrad students so often what I find funny they do not or vice versa. Not much fun laughing on your own!

    I have had a bit more luck parralelling historical events with current events although perhaps it is the year that’s in it. They were interested in the Tulip Bubble and financial crashes in European history, while economic history raises a bit more interest then it did in my day. They were also interested the Great Frost of 1739 (and Famine of 1740-41). Keeping it within their frame of reference keeps can help to maintain attention but that explains why we see trends in historical research.

  6. Juliana Says:

    Great post, Lisa. Your honesty and enthusiasm is no doubt apparent to the students as well!

    I always feel when teaching anything to do with Irish history that at any moment someone is going to stand up and say ‘But you’re even Irish! What do you know? You did a degree in science!…’ So far no one has but I keep waiting.


  7. JOE Says:

    I thought your post was cool. If you love your subject and relate well to your students, including the disenchanted ,you will not have any problem they love enthusiam. Good luck in you journey.

  8. Bridget Flannery Says:

    As one of your students I think you’re doing a very good job. Clear presentations, interesting topics and great energy. Am looking forward to next term.

  9. puesoccurrences Says:

    Thanks Juliana, Joe and Bridget!


  10. My first teaching term (via Pue’s Occurrences) | Eoin Purcell's Blog Says:

    […] By Lisa Marie Griffith This year, 2010-2011, I am embarking on my first year lecturing. I have sat in many teaching interviews over the last few years reciting my virtues as a scholar to the interview panel and promising that I would be a wonderful teacher and gifted communicator in the hopes of convincing the often stoney faced panel to just give me a paying job. I will have to admit that the day I was finally offered a teaching job the panic se … Read More […]

  11. LouisemacLouise Says:

    Lisa, it sounds like you are doing a great job. As a relatively new lecturer myself I can really empathize with your plight. I remember in one of my first lectures I went in and my skirt was still tucked into might tights. Oh the shame!! The horror!!

    But I quickly got over that and like most of the students most of time. I find, it is equally tough to get used to the administrative/ management side of university life as academics can be an eccentric bunch!

  12. Frank Says:

    In a former life I was a philosophy lecturer. I had previously been a tutor so this probably helped my initial nervousness at coping with a class. Having said that, I was often just a few steps ahead in lectures as I was given the job at short notice. I found the mature students were quite helpful when a difficult question was asked as I got them involved in the answer and they often had quite interesting points to make that the 18 year olds would never have thought of.

    It might be a good idea to pepper your lectures with references to underexplored areas which attentive students might pick up on as a research topic. I also enjoy those lectures where ‘experts in the field’ are debunked or at least shaken slightly from their pedestals and think that students might enjoy this as well.

  13. puesoccurrences Says:

    Louise- how embaressing but glad to hear you got over it. I’m sure after that you can handle anything.

    Frank- Thanks for your suggestions!!


  14. Professor Harry Craked Says:

    ‘There will always be students texting etc – they’re adults, your job is not to ‘reach’ the disenchanted ones but to educate those who want to learn.’

    It is basic politeness to switch off your phone in class: would a lecturer text in class? There should be no texting, or indeed surfing the net: laptops are for taking notes!

  15. puesoccurrences Says:

    No pseudonyms please- if you are going to leave comments please use your first name at least.

  16. Cliff Says:

    You’ll be fine, Lisa. If you can convey your lectures as well as your post, I’m sure you’ve nothing to worry about. I got nervous reading it… I might be taking a technical training position later in the year, and reading your post made me imagine myself having to stand up in front of everyone and start talking. Yikes!

  17. puesoccurrences Says:

    Thanks Cliff- I should probably add that I have a great advantage when it comes to public speaking. I worked as a tour guide during my PhD giving 2 hour historical walking tours of Dublin:
    That definatley helped, although with the tours you can tell yourself that you will never see those people again. With lectures you have to make sure that your students are engaged for a full course.

    To Professor Harry Craked- no students should not be texting or on the internet, however, mobil phones are everywhere and some people are very relaxed about when they use them and unfortunatley that extends to the classroom. I am not always prepared to stop a lecture because I can see somone texting. I think it can distract me to do so and also teh other students who are in the class and actually listening.


  18. Pue is 2: Lisa « Pue's Occurrences Says:

    […] always get a really positive response. I was delighted with the response to the post I wrote about my first teaching term and it felt very reassuring that I am not on my own in having worries or concerns- we are all in […]

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