Teaching: on the front line

April 9, 2004

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

Name: Gavin Burnage

Age: 40

Job: Computer-assisted language learning officer in the faculty of modern and medieval languages, Cambridge University.

Salary: £36,000

Qualifications: BA in linguistics and English humanities; postgraduate diploma in data processing (Ulster).

Experience: I've made a career of combining computing with language. I started in the Netherlands, working on lexical databases before moving into a basement of Oxford University Computing Services to work on the British National Corpus , a 100 million-word computerised collection of English. We started a humanities computing training course for postgraduates partly as a way to see daylight. I didn't realise I could teach until then, but now I'm in Cambridge doing it - the Certificate in Humanities Computing for Languages (Chucol) has been running for four years.

Hours spent teaching: Five formal hours a week on Chucol, plus classes for postgraduates, new undergraduates, open days, visiting teachers and so on.

Hours on red tape: Some 30 to 40 per cent in a typical week, sometimes 60 to 70 per cent or more.

Hours on research: Depends what you call research - there's hardcore papers for the research assessment exercise, and preparation and evaluation for software development.

Teaching bugbear: People such as me are emerging who work at the boundary between particular subjects and technology, but we don't yet have a place in traditional academic structures. Also, "innovation" can mean different things. To money providers it's the latest "competitive" technology, but to students and staff it might be getting online access to exam papers.

How would you solve it? Make people aware of the pros and cons of technology - when, where and how to use it, and what only computing can do.

That's partly what Chucol is for.

Worst teaching moment: Demonstrating technological stuff at an Open Day to 200 school students and others when the power went out. I had to plough on under emergency lights for half an hour. Luckily I'd brought notes and got by with ad-libbing and mime. As I finished, the power came back.

Best teaching moment: I love the "before and after", seeing students produce webpages in Russian or surveys of audio, literature and video.

Funniest teaching moment: Gently teaching someone what the "return" key was.

Teaching tip: Prepare backups and plans for power cuts.

Outside interests: I'm a soldier in the Territorial Army, a season ticket-holder at Leeds United, a musician playing Irish traditional music, and a member of Holy Trinity Church, Cambridge.

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