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!