Tuesday, 18 January 2011

the challenge of teaching: attitude and aptitude...on both sides

I'm beginning to reflect on my first term of undergraduate teaching: an experience I enjoyed more than I expected.

Last term I co-convened a module on US Foreign Policy to be delivered to second year politics and history undergrads. Over 90 signed up for the module, and though lecture attendee numbers dropped off dramatically in the last couple of weeks of term (when essay writing was really biting), for the most part, the sessions were well attended. the scary part was that all but a few of the students were born after the fall of the Berlin wall. For them, the Cold War was history.

Being dropped in to deliver 11 lectures and half a dozen seminar sessions was a terrific first teaching experience - and being older than the average newbie really helped me. One poor chap called me 'Dr. Shanahan' throughout the term - and wouldn't be disabused of the fact that I was still some way short of completing my PhD. Because I'm mid-40s and have a fair bit of conference presenting and training behind me, most of the rest simply assumed I was a regular lecturer.....little did they know that I was hitting the books pretty hard each week to shape my thoughts, keep a week ahead of them and deliver something that was even half-way convincing.
Some weeks went better than others. The Truman Doctrine, Marshall Plan, Communism at Home and Kennedy's Khrushchev summit all elicited interesting questions and comments and rather more interaction from the students than, say, the sessions on NSC 68 or Eisenhower's Presidency - you can tell which topics get covered at A Level! The sessions where I felt I was rather talking to myself for an hour were tougher - particularly one or two of the earlier ones which were followed by videos rather than a live seminar. I still find it weird to see students standing up and walking out before the session's over - not while I'm lecturing, but both during the screenings and worse still, while their colleagues were debating in the seminar sessions. I find that quite rude and it's an aspect of the modern student life that I'd reverse if I had the chance.

I'm none too impressed either by the students who habitually turn up 15 minutes late for the lecture. My habit is simply to stop (often in mid sentence) when they arrive and pick up from where I've left off only when they've finally sat down. Most got the message, but there were one or two rhino-skinned characters who really didn't seem to care. The lecture theatre had doors on the front on either side. So one week, after the latest flurry of latecomers had arrived with the usual 'Sorry we're late!' sentiments, I disappeared out one door, walked back in the other, paused, looked up at the students and went: "Sorry, I'm late." Sadly, my poor attempt at sarcasm went right over the heads of most - while some didn't even appear to notice.

In terms of lecturing, there were two other changes I noted from my days as an undergrad. The first was the large number of students who arrived with laptops and netbooks and proceeded to type up my every utterance and every word of every slide. I could never quite reconcile how they had time to listen to, or digest, anything as they seemed totally absorbed in note taking. At the other end of the sphere was a small group who seemed far more concerned to keep up a low level of conversational buzz throughout the whole session. It was the same people week in and week out and frankly, it was pretty tiresome. I don't think I'd ever have had that level of disrespect for my lecturers or, particularly. my fellow students. Thankfully, it was a very small group and most students were both attentive and encouraging.
Presiding over seminar sessions (which were structured debates) and then marking the follow-up essays was an eye-opener too. At the start of term, students rushed to sign up to debate sessions. But as the weeks rolled round and the need to work as a team to structure a good argument kicked in, so did the propensity for some students to try and wriggle out of the work. It was quite amazing how many serious accidents and misfortunes befell not the students, but generally their nearest and dearest, with the result that they couldn't complete their assignments. I have no doubt that some of the reasons were genuine, but I swiftly became quite cynical as people simply didn't turn up to their presentation sessions and then submitted weak essays, often late.

The debates were often quite good. Generally there's be one or two really good speakers per team....while the rest had a tendency to read from a script or address their slides rather than the audience (or both). Again, this generation of students appears to be weaker than my generation when it comes to public speaking - and structuring a debate. But there again, I went to an independent school and we were pushed into fairly regular public speaking from a pretty young age. This generation seems to have far greater swagger than mine. But when it comes to a pretty critical aspect of education, a lot less confidence.

It has been interesting to see just how spoon fed some (by no means all) students want to be. in the early weeks I was continually badgered for my slides and asked to provide my lecture notes. But this isn't like the American system (yet). There is no foreign policy 101: my notes tended to be scribbles for me and the slides tended to contain more pictures than words - copying them faithfully wasn't going to gain an A in the essay or exam. They simply reflected my view at a certain time and were intended to stimulate the students to think for themselves about the subject matter.
Some certainly grasped that. I marked some really strong essays demonstrating incredibly sharp minds among these budding historians. Many of the essays were a real pleasure to read and gave the feeling that people had gained something from the class. But I marked some stinkers too - poorly researched, full of factual errors, incredibly badly written and with no coherent argument. In some cases, I wondered how the writers had got so far through the educational system - and why on earth they were studying a subject they clearly had no aptitude for. I first went to university when it was rather more elitist, but I began to think over Christmas, when marking a pretty mediocre batch of essays, that perhaps the pendulum has swung too far.
The problem for middle-ranking universities like mine is that they need to keep student numbers up - more so than ever now as Government funding dries up. The result is that they're far more likely to take a chance on a less gifted student now, and will do all they can to keep the cohort solid once students have signed up and paid the fees. That seems even more apparent when it comes to foreign students - of course, a great source of revenue. My class was absolutely a rainbow nation - and generally all the better for that. But, in some cases, I had students whose grasp of English was so poor that I really didn't know if they were good, bad or indifferent as scholars since their written English simply did not enable them to express themselves properly. However, there are always surprises. Some of the very best essays I marked came from International students while I was just about to recommend one student should sign up for the free seminars on academic writing for students with English as a foreign language when I realised the student was, in fact, white, middle class, British and a product of our own education system.
The last surprise was how few students could be bothered to come and collect their essays. Even during my Masters, I'd be knocking on the lecturer's door as soon as I knew one of my essays was ready for collection. When I handed over to my co-convener last week, I also handed him probably half of the essays I'd marked.

I learned a lot - and there's much I can work on to make me a far better lecturer going forward. It has taken me some time to get used to the changing attitudes of students and the differing aptitudes that are bound to exist within a class of 90+ students. But I've come through this experience feeling very positive - and with a real appetite for more.

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