Teaching: on the front line

April 30, 2004

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

Name : Peter T. Robbins

Age : 36

Job : Lecturer in sociology, Institute of Water and Environment, Cranfield University; convener of the sociology of development unit, London University External Programme.

Salary : Lecturer B scale (up to £34,838).

Qualifications : BSc psychology; MSc sociology, PhD.

Experience : While a student I tutored recovering drug addicts. My first student went AWOL halfway through the test. I was also a peer tutor of psychological research methods. I worked my way through my PhD, teaching sociology and environmental geography, and each summer I marked exam scripts. My first job was as sociology lecturer at Reading University from 1999-2000. I have been in my present post since September 2000.

Hours spent teaching : About 50 a year, plus preparation and assessment. I supervise eight MSc and PhD students, and act on the supervision committees of 14 others.

Hours on red tape : Refreshingly free of it.

Hours on research : About 40 per cent of my time.

Teaching bugbear : Connecting a mainly academic training with the real-world expectations of my students.

How do you solve it? There is a great tradition of team-teaching methods at Cranfield. One of the units I convene is taught primarily to students who will be installing community water supply and sanitation systems in African villages. I teach this with one of my senior colleagues, a "socially aware" engineer. We approach the teaching as a kind of dialectic between theory and practice, sociology and engineering, and engage each other and the students in debates, discussions and role plays.

Worst teaching moment : The first couple of units at Cranfield when I was teaching engineers as if they were sociologists. I took for granted that social theory was a good thing in itself. I soon had students saying it was a waste of time because "none of the social theorists had ever gotten it right". These days I stress the idea of theory as a tool and its transferability. Now they complain there's not enough theory.

Best/least funny teaching moment : My institute sent me to Ethiopia to work with one of my PhD students. He asked me to conduct an interview to learn something from my technique. I had been stressing the importance of allowing interesting topics to emerge. The woman I was interviewing on local health practices started talking about bloodletting in graphic detail, and then offered to demonstrate for us.

Teaching tip : Work hard to get to know your audience, and gear teaching and learning to people's background and needs.

Outside interests : Running, cycling, swimming and film.

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