Teaching: on the front line

January 23, 2004

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

Name - John Callaghan.

Age : 51.

Job : Professor of politics in the School of Humanities, Languages and Social Sciences, University of Wolverhampton.

Salary : About £45,000.

Qualifications : BSc economics (LSE); MA (Essex); PhD, PGCE (Manchester).

Background : In 1978 people didn't bother with certificates for university teaching, but I went into further education in Solihull. I taught everything from O-level resits to A-level history. It was a baptism of fire. I left for Wolverhampton in 1980 when it was still a polytechnic.

Hours spent teaching : About ten a week.

Hours on red tape : Difficult to estimate. I'm on lots of committees and steering through three MA awards.

Hours on research : Open-ended.

Your politics teaching tip? Use 1789 as a starting point to introduce first-years to theories about the modern world. You can trace thoughts on ideology, democracy, nationalism, internationalism, socialism and totalitarianism back to the American and French revolutions.

Teaching bugbear : Marking essays. One module generated about 180. The marking was split between two of us. Modules are big: between 50 and 100 students. That's partly why students are channelled into core modules as modules are "rationalised". I'm trained in the Open University method of giving lots of feedback, and Quality Assurance Agency inspections reinforced that. You can't get away with giving students an A and A* and a sentence of comment. You are more likely to write a page and half. Many students are weak and need specialist support. The essay marker will spot that first.

How would you solve it? A mixed assessment system. But for some modules essays are best because they get students to synthesise what has been taught. Students cannot steer through a degree by avoiding one form of assessment or another. There will always be complaints.

Worst teaching moments? I was teaching a first-year evening class of about 50 students, more than 25 per cent were from ethnic minorities. One student was particularly argumentative and reminded me of activists I knew as an undergraduate. His name came up a year later during the Afghanistan war because he was allegedly recruiting for the Taliban. Last I heard he was picked up by MI5 in Manchester. He made me realise that Islamic fundamentalism is a heady cocktail.

Funniest? Marking a paper on the second world war in which a student referred to the "Walsall" uprising rather than the Warsaw. The thought of the red army camped in the Midlands had me in stitches.

Outside interests : I support Manchester United. I like walking, running and cycling.

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