Excite yourself, then engage students

April 19, 2002

What is it that makes a good teacher? Alan Sked says an interest in students, intellectual rigour and enthusiasm are vital.

As I am on sabbatical leave, the invitation to write about teaching came at the wrong time. Or did it? Having spent two terms away from the lecture room, perhaps I should be able to put teaching into some perspective.

The invitation also made me realise that I have now been teaching in the international history department of the London School of Economics for... well, more years than I care to admit.

Curiously, I still enjoy teaching. In fact, I prefer my students to my colleagues. I still socialise with my students and former students more frequently than I do with my colleagues. This is not because my colleagues are uncongenial, but because they lead busy lives, often outside London, and no doubt have much better things to do. Perhaps they also prefer socialising with students.

I think it is important to socialise with students. They should be respected as human beings - interesting and intelligent in their own right - rather than treated as just potential repositories of data. Students should also be nurtured intellectually - given all the information and guidance they need to understand what their courses are designed to do; provided with regular feedback on how they are progressing; encouraged to learn new information technology skills and foreign languages; encouraged to explore associated disciplines in degree courses; taught how to conduct independent research; and shown how to write well.

I try to contribute to this in my own way, by offering a variety of courses that change continually. Courses can get stale after about five years - I think teachers should be forced to offer new ones fairly regularly. Before I took my sabbatical leave, I was teaching two undergraduate courses and two masters courses - along with a variety of PhD students. My undergraduate courses were "Race, sex and slavery: the western experience" and "The history of the USA". My MA courses were "From cold warriors to peacemakers: the end of the cold-war era, 1979-1995" and "Britain in the modern world: great power and decline?'. I am now thinking of doing something new: "Europe since 1945" and/or "The Habsburg monarchy, 1815-1918" (this could be an MA course).

Some historians prefer to teach the same subject all the time. This does not matter as long as they can sustain a real interest in it, find new things to say about it, and convey their passion and research findings in their lectures and classes.

Whether lecturers prefer to specialise or not, they must make their topics interesting. Clearly some genuine intellectual interest and commitment on the part of their students will also help.

It is always helpful not to overestimate the basic knowledge of students, many of whom leave basic learning - far less revision - until rather late in the academic year. This means that the overall argument in lectures should be made emphatically clear. The model lecture should be like a model essay - a lucid argument highlighted by telling pieces of evidence and pointed towards a logical and persuasive conclusion. Students should be able in lectures to absorb arguments, analyses and academic controversies and be left to fill in the details from textbooks, monographs and articles later. Most of all, they should come to understand that university study is about the clash of ideas, "the life of the mind".

In classes and tutorials, students should be forced to defend their ideas. Regurgitation should not suffice; conventional wisdom should not suffice; even original thought should not suffice without a solid basis of evidence. Teaching students to strike the correct balance between evidence and argument is the central aim of university education.

What makes a good teacher then? University teachers must appreciate students and like them. They must nurture them intellectually by giving them every possible educational support; they themselves must demonstrate how to present data in terms of ideas, analyses, controversies and research; and they must teach their students how to do the same by forcing them to defend their ideas rigorously. But the bottom line is this: if university teachers lack intellectual enthusiasm, their students will probably never gain any.

Has the bureaucratisation of the past few decades and the headlong expansion of higher education altered any of this? It has certainly impinged on research time and on the quality and quantity of research output.

I have not witnessed any fall in student standards at the LSE, and I think that, if anything, teaching standards have improved. But we must surely be approaching the limits of what academics can be expected to do in a year with regards to teaching, research and administration (especially in light of the depressed salaries they receive).

One reason I took my sabbatical this year was the fear that the government might soon abolish them. British governments take education - especially higher education - for granted. Alas, this one is no different.

Alan Sked is senior lecturer in international history at the London School of Economics.

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