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Reflections on Teaching in UK Academia

By Helen Drake

A more recent shift to teaching international postgraduates has shown me how much work is still to be done to truly diversify the students’ learning experience. It is hard and it is humbling.

My Experience as a Teacher in UK Academia or What I Wish Someone had Told Me

Teaching even after all these years is still a haven for me – a sort of personal safe space. No matter what has just happened outside the classroom, when I step inside, I feel right. This tells me that teaching is about skills, yes, but it’s also about vocation and aptitude, and meaning. Trust that you are in the profession because you are dedicated to conveying your knowledge and passion. Those are aspects of your professional persona to develop and to convey to others, and to refer to when the going gets tough.

 

Here are some additional thoughts based on my experience to date.

First, it’s not usually you, but ‘them’. By them, I don’t mean the students themselves as individual learners, but the students as they have by and large been constructed – in the UK at least – as fee-paying consumers of higher education. And what that means is to always think about what support and assistance you need, and expect your ‘managers’ to manage. That is what they are there for, in those roles. Don’t hide or let yourself get isolated in any problematic situations that arise. Do what you can to make the system work as it’s supposed to. Expect people in positions of responsibility to take responsibility. Find a mentor who you trust. Do not take it all on your own shoulders but find other, broader backs whose job it is to take some of the strain. If you think that students on a programme are being over-assessed, then they probably are. Think constructively about the processes, structures and so on through which you can bring this up and start a process of change. You have agency and your view counts. Make your voice heard, learn tactics, get cover, above all, be professional. Sometimes be prepared to say no.

Second, and in my experience, 18 (or so)-year old undergraduate students in 2020 are pretty much the same as the 18-year old students I ‘experimented’ on when I began academic teaching in 1990. They may since have been reframed as fee payers (more accurately, as fee debtors) but that has been done to them; they have been told that they need feedback and can expect it. But no matter how far they are coopted into the dynamics of student-as-consumer, student-as-future employee, student-as-student rep etc, it is my experience that they are still at the same life stage. Young. Distracted. You name it. Let’s assume, too, that they are as or eager or disinclined to learn as previous generations. We should not be surprised when they don’t read all the guidance, policy, advice and other information that we now expect them to absorb (“read the guide”, we tell them); when they don’t even read the feedback; when they ask me to just call them with the grade (my line: no grade without feedback); when, even, they think that I and a colleague – she was French, significantly older than me and physically different, or so I thought – were one and the same person: older white woman comes and teaches us French, end of. That’s how little they were interested in us as individuals and – not ignoring the probable gender and ageism issues there – I’m pretty fine with their supreme lack of interest in me beyond my teaching persona – what I want from them is to show up and pay attention, learn, and enjoy it.

 

My Experience as Someone who Hires and Manages Academics who Teach or Systems, Teams and Colleagues

When recruiting academic staff there are essential criteria that we can’t easily get around: at a minimum, a teaching qualification and/or a probationary period until you qualify; experience of teaching; experience of designing and possibly leading as a teacher.

Beyond the formal criteria, when I’m looking for and working with new academic teachers, what’s in my mind? Based on my most recent experiences, I’m looking for people who can complement and expand current teaching capacity. How? By bringing in new subject areas, new networks of collaborators, new skills and methodologies. New personalities and different experiences. I’m also interested in candidates who show an understanding of the need for systems: systems to handle teaching design, delivery, quality control. You may not have experience of designing systems but showing you understand the necessity is reassuring. A system is a practice that works and that can be scaled up and rolled out to collective benefit. A system takes some of the weight off our individual shoulders and shares out the burden. Systems can be evaluated, tweaked, and tested, but they are crucial if we are to avoid chasing our tails. Look for small funding pots and awards to help; I did this, for example, to devise and implement a system (a scheme) for student peer advisers to encourage and support student mobility (time abroad). Ask questions in interviews about the systems that are already in place, and how well they’re working, and show interest in contributing to improvements.

The peer advisor scheme takes me to another point, which is to consider linking your teaching and research. We’re familiar with the need for research-based teaching, but this is teaching-based research, or pedagogical research. Publishing a research article on a teaching practice that I had conceived, designed, funded, delivered, evaluated and presented to senior management was one of the most rewarding pieces of research I have ever conducted. That makes sense since it drew on my subjectivity and my experience, which loaded it with meaning. So consider publishing on your pedagogy: it could benefit us all, and it would certainly attract my attention.

A system, then, perhaps with underpinning research, builds capacity for all members of the team. Because when I hire, I’m consciously building a team of teachers (and researchers, of course). What does a team look like? It’s a combination of subject areas, skills and methodologies as above, but much more than that. It’s a range of experience and expertise. Crucially, it’s an understanding of the value of a team that is more than a random collection of individuals working in the same place.

A team too needs to attend to matters of equality, diversity and inclusion for their own sake, above and beyond university strategy or legal requirements. This framework requires active intervention, and I know I am definitely still learning. For example, faced with structural gender imbalance in the applicant pool, I have looked for ways to provide space and resources for aspiring female academics to subsequently compete more emphatically on the open job market. The route may be less direct, but valuable in its own right, I hope, if it goes well. More generally, I strive to keep my own practices and habits under review, both in order to identify and address unconscious bias but to also develop the confidence to champion candidates who for whatever reason – gender, but not only – may otherwise get easily overlooked.

 

In Conclusion or We All Have our Limits

As we work through the ripple effects on our jobs of the current Covid-19 situation, I think we could do worse than stick to the basics of what gets us through a crisis. Your CV will be all the stronger if you can point to how you pulled together with colleagues to mitigate the worst of the impact on yourselves, your students and your institutions. In summary: be kind, be supportive, seek support, expect good behaviour – of students and colleagues – and call out bad behaviour, seeking cover if needs be. Respect your students and respect yourself. In hashtag terms, I suggest #trustyourself.

 

By Professor Helen Drake, Director of the Institute for Diplomacy and International Governance, Loughborough University London, UK