Teaching: on the front line

March 5, 2004

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

Name: Seth Kunin

Age: 42

Job: Director of research for the College of Arts and Social Sciences and acting head of School of Divinity, History and Philosophy, Aberdeen University.

Salary: £44,000

Qualifications: BA anthropology (Columbia, New York); MA (Jewish Theological Seminary of America); PhD in anthropology (Cambridge); rabbinical ordination (Leo Baeck College, London)

Experience: My mother was an anthropologist and I used to sit in on her lectures when I was off school. My goal when I was studying to be a rabbi was to teach, and I did my PhD because I wanted to be an academic. I was rabbi of Nottingham for a couple of years before my first academic appointment at the university there.

Hours spent teaching: Curtailed this year because of the management posts but used to be ten or more hours a week.

Hours on red tape: Three-quarters of the job.

Research? Anthropological analysis of biblical and mythical texts, and ethnographic work among Crypto-Jews in the Spanish diaspora, mostly New Mexico. These are people whose ancestors converted to Catholicism 400 or 500 years ago and who are exploring their Jewish identity.

Teaching bugbear: That I'm not able to teach as much as I want. I never write down my lectures but speak them. When I started giving conference papers, I was told write them but never read them. Now I don't bring notes.

I look at how the students or audience responds and think on my feet. It is a much better way of communicating. For me, a lecture is half way to a seminar. In my own learning, a good lecturer was worth so much.

Worst teaching moment? When I had just started teaching I was part of a team assessing student presentations on medieval Jewish, Islamic and Christian thought. A student argued that Francis of Assisi was a Sufi but his argument was academically wrong. We tore the arguments apart in front of the students so they would understand why they were not academically acceptable. We thought the student, who was mature, would not get upset. He did. I felt bad about it for a long time but don't know what we could have done differently.

Most embarrassing? At Nottingham, a pair of us were allocated a new high-tech teaching room. On the first day, I took out my whiteboard marker to write only to realise I'd started on a high-tech screen. I stopped at the first letter. When the other lecturer took over a few weeks later he did the same - writing the same letter next to mine. "LL" is probably up there to this day.

Teaching tip? Be enthusiastic.

Outside interests: Running marathons.

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