Experience is the best teacher

July 12, 1996

Universities have come in for criticism because of their increasing use of postgraduate tutors to "mop up" the less illustrious teaching tasks. More and more undergraduates find themselves under the care of a research student for part of their time at college because of the pressure on hard-pressed staff caused by inflated student numbers.

Is this a bad thing? I think not. For both the post-graduates and their students there are distinct advantages. For the former, it provides the opportunity to cut their pedagogical teeth on home turf in a relatively informal set-up where they can, if necessary, call on the support of more senior staff. They are, in effect, serving an apprenticeship; and for those who are unsure about whether they want to go on to become lecturers later, this period can help them decide.

Most postgraduates eagerly welcome the degree of responsibility and independence that comes with teaching duties. It is both a challenge and a relief to be on the other side of the fence for once, "giving out" rather than "taking in", and looking after younger students who are grateful for any attention, advice and support they can get.

Most postgrads enjoy teaching and are keen to get it right precisely because they are new to it. They tend to be conscientious and enthusiastic with their classes, both because they are anxious to prove their worth and because teaching their subject is still a novelty. This is not to say that full-time lecturers are jaded or faint-hearted, but simply to point out that novices often make up for what they lack in experience and acquired knowledge with an extra sense of zeal and diligence.

From the undergraduates' point of view, feelings might be more mixed. They may feel they have been fobbed off with inexperienced teachers using them as guinea pigs. But most students will still be mainly taught by lecturers; and the benefits of having access to a younger, perhaps more approachable tutor in addition, are considerable. Students can strike up a more informal relationship with postgrads because there is less of a distance between them than there is with more senior academics. They may feel freer to express themselves without inhibition in seminars, and more comfortable about approaching their younger tutor with problems.

This can be a good complement to their relationship with full-time lecturers who may give a slightly different kind of stimulation and nourishment based on their seniority and greater academic authority. Students are probably less afraid of treading on the toes of their postgraduate tutors, and so communication is often more direct.

There is also the time and energy factor. Postgrad tutors are usually better placed to spend the odd half hour after class chatting to students with queries or problems, because they do not have the heavier teaching and administrative schedule of lecturers.

Of course, they have their research to get on with - but chances are they feel more able to devote that little extra attention to their students.

It has been argued that teaching interferes with postgraduate research, siphoning off energies that should be concentrated on completing dissertations and theses. But it is just as likely that the postgrad tutor will simply go up a gear and become more efficient, using his or her time in a more disciplined way.

Finally, postgrad teaching helps break through the isolation and penury of life as a research student. Working all alone on a difficult project, with a tight budget, can be a strain. Teaching gets the postgrad back in circulation and brings in much-needed extra income.

So it would be a shame if budding academics were denied the opportunity to gain invaluable experience in this way at the beginning of their careers. In fact, this is probably the only "in-house" training aspiring lecturers have ever been able to benefit from. After all, experience is the best teacher.

Anna Wigley has been a postgraduate tutor for the past three years at Cardiff University.

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