Teaching: on the front line

September 12, 2003

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

Name: David Webb

Age: 41

Job: Reader in electronic engineering and member of the photonics research group at Aston University.

Salary: About £40K.

Qualifications: BA and PhD in physics.

Experience: Two years of research in industry and two years as a postdoc at Oxford, where I gave maths tutorials at Pembroke College. This was followed by ten years as a physics lecturer at Kent. I moved to electronic engineering at Aston two years ago. My first teaching experience was as an A-level student helping my cousin prepare for her physics O level. She ended up with a PhD, so I must have done something right.

Hours spent teaching: Varies with the time of year. My teaching load isn't too far from what I would choose in an ideal world; I give two modules, run a laboratory and look after quite a few undergraduate and postgraduate projects on top of tutorial duties.

Hours on red tape: On top of the normal load, I am a member of the university's quality and standards committee. This year I took over chairmanship of the school's quality committee. I am also coordinating the project placements on our telecommunications-related masters programmes.

This is hard as increasing student numbers have coincided with the downturn in the telecommunication industry.

Hours on research: Never enough. I am moving into what is for me a new interdisciplinary field - polymer optics - and acquiring contacts, equipment and research staff is a challenge. The good news is that the European Science Foundation has approved a proposal I coordinated for a pan-European network of researchers.

Teaching bugbears: First is the lack of motivation among many students. I find this perplexing given the financial hardship that many endure to attend university. Second are the difficulties associated with teaching science and engineering students with a wide ability range.

How would you solve it? Motivation? Many strategies cost a lot in terms of staff time. Since there is no slack, implementing one means something else must go. A cost-benefit analysis is complicated as different strategies cannot be considered in isolation - a holistic approach works best.

Ability range? We are recruiting too many students who do not have the innate ability, particularly in mathematics, to cope with the material taught. Instead of dumbing down, entry standards on traditional courses should be raised. It is vital that the most able students that industry needs are fully stretched. For the less mathematically able, I favour non-traditional (non-mathematical) science-related courses that might be concept based.

Teaching pleasures: The best bit in research is the "click" you get when you suddenly see the solution to something you've been puzzling over. In teaching it is the vicarious thrill you get from helping to spark that in a student. Unfortunately, that happens most in the one-on-one situation, which is becoming increasingly rare.

Outside interests: Family, paragliding and mountaineering.

Career highpoints: Getting a scholarship to Oxford, my first publication, getting my PhD, my first research appointment, my first academic appointment, the first time I gave a lecture, getting promoted. As an optimist, I hope the best is always yet to come.

Please login or register to read this article

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments