Teaching: on the front line

February 21, 2003

What is your experience of teaching? Pat Leon asks teachers how they manage.

Name:  Heather Viles.

Age: 43.

Job: Reader in geomorphology in the School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford.

Salary: Adequate.

Qualifications: BSc geography (Cambridge); DPhil (Oxford) on limestone weathering on Aldabra Atoll in the Seychelles.

Experience: I went full time seven years ago after several short-term, part-time lecturing jobs. I have had almost no formal teacher training. My first Oxford tutorial was on karst geomorphology with two of the brightest male students in their year. I was in my second year of the DPhil and had just returned from three months on Aldabra. I still remember the terror.

Like others, I tried to emulate the best teaching I had received. I was taught at Cambridge by the great, but unorthodox, David Stoddart. He approached small-group teaching with gusto. His vast experience, practical research and fund of scurrilous stories kept us riveted. I have recently taken courses for new staff on tutorial teaching. These have given me a theoretical background plus new ideas. I am always keen to find ways to make presentations more interesting and memorable.

Hours spent teaching: This term is my busiest. I am giving three lectures a week to undergraduates. One is a new course, so I am still writing lectures. I do eight hours of undergraduate tutorials a week, in groups ranging from one to five students. I teach on three masters courses, so do about two hours a week of small-group teaching. Finally, I supervise four DPhil students, two in Oxford, one in the field, and another writing up.

There is a fair amount of preparation and marking.

Hours spent on red tape: Oxford is covered in it. We have college, department and university committees. I am departmental safety officer and chair of the university's environment panel. I am covering as women's tutor in my college for two terms. This involves pastoral work. As I direct a small MSc course, there is a lot of coordination with visiting speakers, students seeking dissertation projects and so on.

Hours on research: I shall cry if I answer this honestly. I am trying to launch a research consultancy with a colleague, and I have numerous research projects to complete and write up as well as grant applications to write. Research takes up about half a day a week in terms of real work, but it occupies my mind constantly, especially in bed. I passionately believe my teaching is enriched by my research and vice versa.

Teaching bugbear: The difficulty of unlocking students' creativity and skills. Often, I see a first-year struggling to write essays and to get to grips with the work. Nothing you suggest seems to help. Somehow, months later, a switch goes on and they are suddenly storming ahead. How does that happen? Do we help, or is it something that they have to do themselves?

Teaching pleasure: The interaction with other intelligent and thoughtful minds, especially in small-group, tutorial settings. Seeing students come out with unusual ideas and questions is always inspiring.

Top tip: Be yourself.

Outside interests: Keeping fit through running, swimming and aerobics; reading novels; my family, which comes first - I spend most of my time driving my two daughters to things, discussing things and tidying up after them; and travel.

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