#ToughToTeach: readers reveal their pedagogical no-go zones

From Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics to promissory estoppel, conveying knowledge can be hard going at times

July 17, 2014

In last week’s cover feature, we asked five academics to tell us about the topics they had found hardest to teach.

Franz Kafka, the Mau Mau uprising in colonial Kenya and the reason blackbirds sing were among the subjects that had our scholars struggling, and we thought we would encourage our Twitter followers to let us know about their toughest lessons using the hashtag #ToughToTeach.

The responses were fascinating. “Medieval literature as a compulsory module for Business and German joint honours students was very #ToughToTeach,” tweeted Helen Webster (@scholastic_rat), an academic at Anglia Ruskin University.

“Well, the textual criticism of the Greek text of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics was certainly no picnic,” said a tweeter known as @Parailleurs1. Ann Singleton (@AnnSingleton15), head of the Centre for the Study of Poverty and Social Justice at the University of Bristol, confessed that it had been a “bit difficult teaching former KGB and border guards about the merits of transparency in migration data”.

“The laws behind digital distribution, when it was snowing outside and everyone had the attention span of a kitten,” was #ToughToTeach for @DarkCityXX, an “FE Course Leader, Postgrad, Champagne lover”, while “the law relating to promissory estoppel” was @KateAllan74’s pick. “Lots of law tweets in #ToughToTeach,” observed Lincoln Law School (@Lincolnlaw), adding “not sure this is representative!!” Caroline Magennis (@DrMagennis), lecturer in 20th and 21st century literature at the University of Salford, said teaching “Northern Irish lit in Belfast” was her biggest challenge. Although it was “worth it for amazing discussions”, she “wanted to be careful with such live issues”.

Many tweets had an international flavour. Edward John Bujak (@E_Bujak), who teaches at Harlaxton College in Lincolnshire, said teaching about “Yugoslavia in WWII to US students who were children of Bosnian refugees” was a big challenge, and Carolyn Hoyle (@CarolynHoyle1), professor of criminology and director of the Centre for Criminology at the University of Oxford, found “teaching human rights arguments against capital punishment to 150 Chinese judges in Beijing” difficult.

Peter Kruschwitz (@coruncanius), a “Berliner, Classicist, Scatterbrain”, said he struggled with communicating what higher education is all about to his students, and specifically the notion that “Uni education is about meticulous, hard work, not spoon-fed convenience for customers at the end of a skills conveyor belt”. Nigel Driffield (@Nigel_Driffield), professor of international business and regional economics at Aston Business School, said it was #ToughToTeach “microeconomic theory to sociologists”, while Louise Naylor (@musical_lou), director of the Unit for the Enhancement of Learning and Teaching at the University of Kent, was hard pressed to choose between “metabolism or thermodynamics”.

@Rokewood, a “university prof” in Glasgow, opted for what – theoretically – may be the toughest topic of all to teach: “the animal welfare rights of Schrödinger’s Cat”. What’s the hardest subject you’ve ever taught? You can still join in by tweeting us @timeshighered using the hashtag #ToughToTeach.

Send links to topical, insightful and quirky online comment by and about academics to chris.parr@tsleducation.com

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