Tutor tip: bring your own mug

May 11, 2001

Phil Race swapped a chemistry lab for a classroom and found he needed more than coloured chalk. Alison Utley reports

Persuading several hundred students in a colossal classroom that your lecture is an intimate shared experience is no mean feat - unless either a) you are Phil Race or b) you have read his 2000 Tips for Lecturers , the near-bible of university teaching.

"It is no problem really. There are so many things you can do with very large lecture groups," he says. Such as?

"Such as breaking for short group exercises," he says.

But surely students do not take those very seriously, more likely they will take the opportunity for a gossip.

"Not necessarily. I sample the groups randomly, ask them what they have come up with, and we compare notes around the room. This can be a culture shock and some students try to hide, but it does tend to make people think about what they are contributing."

2000 Tips is more a kind of lifestyle management manual than a dense academic tome. Advice such as "use plastic wallets", "bring your own mug" and "give yourself a break" is intended to support busy lecturers in balancing the various demands upon them.

Race has been teaching lecturers how to teach and students how to learn for some 20 years. And yet he began life as a physical chemist in a very specialised field.

"I was close to being an authority in using impedance methods to study electrochemical kinetics and thermodynamics of liquid-metal aqueous interphases. The fact that there was no real answer to 'What's it for, Phil'? didn't worry me much then. Nor was I worried that my journal pieces were of real interest to six other human beings."

After several happy years in the laboratory at Newcastle University, he moved in 1971 to a lectureship at the Polytechnic of Wales. He remembers his first lecture vividly. "I'd got some spare chalk in my pocket, including coloured chalk, in case of emergency, and my own board eraser in case the statutory one had been picked up and accidentally taken away by Mr Smith who'd done the 9am to 10am lecture before me."

The lecture was fine, he wrote down several important things on the board and the students - all 17 of them - dutifully copied them down.

Race ended up staying in Glamorgan for 24 years and, since the job was much less specialised, found himself becoming more interested in the way students learn. Not least because he was living in student accommodation as hall warden and what began as little chats with students in the kitchen about coping with exams gradually became part of the curriculum. Having noticed that students became perceptibly paler and more withdrawn around assessment time, he started creating handouts, ten tips on this and that. These evolved into 500 Tips for Students , which was eventually published by Blackwells.

"The next one I wrote was 500 Tips for Tutors , with Sally (Brown) before I knew her." They got married in 1995 and continue to enjoy writing together.

Having taken early retirement, Race is now a freelance consultant, author and tutor. Does he regret giving up science? "Never." Despite spending many hundreds of hours on trains travelling around the country, he can quite happily pass the time writing articles or simply jotting down thoughts that amuse him. What does he miss most about belonging to a university? "Paperwork, believe it or not. Some of it is actually quite useful. And I miss bookshelves and having a boss who is willing to pay for me to go to conferences."

What he does not miss are meetings, interdepartmental advanced warfare, empire building and all the other things that get in the way of the real job. "And," he says thoughtfully, "I do not miss having a boss!"

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