Teaching: on the front line

June 20, 2003

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

Name: Charlotte Sleigh

Age: 30

Job: Lecturer (Grade B) in history of science at the University of Kent.

Salary: £26,000

Qualifications: BA (automatic MA due to arcane nonsense at Cambridge), MPhil, PhD (Cambridge University), plus postgraduate certificate in higher education.

Experience: I've taught and supervised since my PhD days but the highlight was working as a visiting assistant professor/postdoctoral fellow to the University of California, Los Angeles.

Hours spent teaching: Average of ten contact hours a week; more like 25-30 including preparation and marking and so on.

Hours on red tape: I'd add an extra ten hours on top of teaching. I do recruitment and admissions, plus I'm on various committees. What dismays me is the way bureaucratic responsibilities leak into the vacation.

Hours on research: During term time, a couple of hours a week. Outside term, an average of 20.

Teaching bugbear: Lack of participation in seminars - closely connected with lack of preparation. It's a vicious circle of low expectation and experience to match. If students don't prepare because they expect to be bored then the conversation is incomprehensible to them - and hence boring.

How would you solve it? A variety of ways. The most bludgeon-like is asking students to leave if they have not done minimum preparation, since their time would be better used by going away and doing it. The shock can be salutory for the group. This perpetuates a school mentality, however, doing work to satisfy the teacher rather than self.

Assessing through the seminar diary format is a better way.

Students write a page of notes for each week's reading and the relevant class discussion, with a couple of pages of general reflection. The emphasis is on engagement with the material, not on listing key points.

Uncertain or changing opinions and unanswered questions are welcomed. This seems to improve general commitment to the course, plus I get to assess a refreshingly non-hoop-jumping exercise.

The basic cause for poor attitude is a consumer perspective on education: if students have paid, why should they have to do anything? I don't think the pre-fees era was full of amazingly self-motivated students, but I think that finding alternative funding to fees would help solve this culture problem.

Teaching pleasures: I am chuffed when history students get into the history of science, since they have a natural fear of anything connected with science. It is wonderful when they take on board the fact that science can be critiqued like any other social or cultural aspect of history.

Tips: Put coffee breaks into seminars. Even if students discuss football rather than the question you sent them away with, they will build up a team spirit. Remember the dynamic of the first seminar will stick for the rest of the year.

Outside interests: The most important one is music (playing the viola in the university orchestra, singing in a techno band). I am very protective of my out-of-work time. The pressures on young academics are immense.

Career high points: Landing a permanent job in 2000. First book due out this summer. Winning the University of Kent teaching award this year.

Getting a Leverhulme fellowship for 2003-04.

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