Teaching: on the front line

July 16, 2004

What is your experience of teaching?

Name : Serena Olsaretti Age: 32 Job: University lecturer in political philosophy and teaching fellow at St John's College, Cambridge.

Salary : About £33,000.

Qualifications : BA, MPhil, DPhil - Jall at Oxford University.

Experience : While doing my masters degree and doctorate, I taught political philosophy in one-to-one supervisions and seminars for five years. I was admitted to Oxford to read psychology, philosophy and physiology, but switched on arrival to philosophy and German.

After two years, having enjoyed immensely the moral and political philosophy side of the course, I switched to philosophy, politics and economics. I liked political theory and the history of political thought and decided to pursue that with graduate work.

Within political theory, my interests changed from critical theory and some postmodern political theory as an undergraduate towards contemporary political philosophy as a graduate. Now my research interests are in theories of distributive justice, ethics of markets and theories of wellbeing.

Hours teaching : Between 12 and 15 a week. I also spend five hours or so on marking. Preparing new lectures or revising them requires ten to15 hours a week on top of that.

Hours on red tape : This varies. In term-time, it will go from five to ten hours.

Hours on research : In term-time, very few! But in the long breaks, the ratio of teaching and administration to research is reversed, and I can dedicate 40 hours or so to research per week.

Teaching bugbear this past year : Some students turn up for one-to-one supervisions without an essay and without having done background reading.

Supervisions can be tremendously fruitful and stimulating when both parties have read and thought about a topic, and the essay constitutes a reference point for that discussion. If someone turns up unprepared, that hour is far less stimulating and less useful.

How do you solve it? By adopting, exceptional circumstances aside, a "no essay, no supervision" rule. I prefer to reschedule a supervision than to make less than optimal use of that supervision hour.

Worst teaching moment? When I realised that a student had probably copied a couple of his weekly essays. When that sort of thing happens, trust is eroded and it is hard for the exchange to continue proving fruitful.

Best? When students in supervisions make observations that help me develop new points and clarify my views.

Other good moments have been at the end of the academic year, when students see their marks posted. It is a pleasure to watch students who have worked hard see their efforts rewarded.

Outside interests : Films, cooking and jogging.

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