Teaching: on the front line

November 28, 2003

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

Name: Suzanne Zeedyk

Age: 40

Job: Senior lecturer in developmental psychology, University of Dundee.

Salary: £36,712

Qualifications: BA psychology (San Diego, US); PhD (Yale, US).

Experience: I was a secretary in an earlier life. I worked with the American Arbitration Association, typing the billing forms for Merchants Trucking Company. The typing and shorthand served me well - I used them to put myself through university. Before my PhD, I worked as group facilitator for a US Navy programme addressing issues such as stress management and alcohol abuse. The post took me overseas and to military bases throughout Scotland. An odd background for an academic, but I learnt to think on my feet, and that gave me the confidence to use a more spontaneous teaching style.

Hours spent on the job: Too many. A standard week is at least 55 hours because I enjoy being involved. The diverse demands on academic staff mean you have to make strict choices if you want to be focused. My most demanding job on the administrative side is as associate dean of programme development and recruitment for the faculty of arts and social science.

There is no extra pay and no substantial reduction of other duties.

Why did you take it on? Because it was a chance to play a role in strategy and direction for my institution. And there are too few women in such posts.

What about research?: The philosophy of science, particularly how science is understood and used in contemporary society, is my focus. This feeds my work on feminist and critical theory, as well as my empirical studies of parent-child interaction. I like working collaboratively and seek out links not only with academics but also local organisations, such as schools, family centres and charities.

Teaching bugbear: That we educators so often fail to create the conditions in which students take risks in their thinking. We want students to think critically, but that takes courage. Large lecture classes, now standard in universities, do not lend themselves to the personal kind of interactions needed for students to develop the confidence to take intellectual leaps.

How would you solve it? By adapting teaching methods and taking risks in my teaching practices. In all my classes, students get a chance to hear their own voice and responses from others. This takes some creativity with large classes, because it would be easier to just deliver material that they can write down.

Best teaching moment: Our departmental dissertations conference, in which final-year students present results of their research project to a public audience. It started small about eight years ago, with seven students, but last year went national, with the British Psychological Society Scottish Branch sponsoring it. We had 65 students from ten institutions participating and an audience of 150. Public presentations still terrify many students. It is striking to realise how effective even one day in a supportive environment can be. As one of the students said: "I never thought I'd be able to do this sort of thing, and now I find I rather enjoy it."

Worst moment: I am deeply frustrated when I fail to get students to take risks. Of course, I can't have the outcomes I hope for with all my students, but there is a part of me that is so frustrated when I can see them tottering on the brink of their potential and they don't take that leap.

Outside interests: Contributing to local Dundee societies and events such as the Civic Trust, International Women's Festival, and Ambassador Network; historical outings; and - to get a bit of peaceful balance in my life - playing the piano and long weekends on the Scottish island of Iona.

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