“Confessions of a semi-employed academic” or “tales from the practical: resurrection”

by e_e_evans PhD student

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This is not hyperbole, this is reality for marking University work… I’ve got over 250 items for two different assignments to mark over the next fortnight or so.

So my PhD funding reached it expected end and I’m into my fourth year.

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Part of that preparation has been my teaching over the last 3 years and, until I acquire full-time gainful employment, the manner by which I can keep myself afloat. So this academic year I’ve taken on lots more teaching and dived considerably further into assisting with teaching in Engineering and not just Geography. So how’s that going? Let’s begin with a section I’m calling:

Lecturing but not “lecturing”

Depending on what discipline you are in at University what is expected of PhD students in terms of teaching can be very different. For physical sciences demonstrating will be assisting and answering questions in practical classes but for humanities it’s likely to be leading small group seminars and for all subject marking assignments will be a key use of PhD students too. But the module I’ve been helping with has transcended the usual expected discipline boundaries. It’s a seminar series teaching professional engineering skills to classes of up to 45 students (more on that number, anon) in 4 50-minute lecture slots. There’s several of use leading the seminars and between us we teach the entire first year of Engineering, nearly 800 students on a 2 week rotation in which we take 3 seminars then assist with 3. Those are pretty mind-blowing numbers. This is one of the solutions that have been used to address the problem of teaching skills that would usually be taught in small tutorial groups when the student numbers have ballooned.

When I was told that this was what my demonstrating for that module was going to be I was quite daunted. The material was being provided but I’ve never lead a full size class for an entire lecture slot before. I guess practice over the years has paid off because after a shaky first one any nerves were minimal and I fell back on some of my Youth Worker tactics to get around issues I had in class (pro tip: If a group of people are talking when you are the fasted way to make them shut up is to ask them a question. Suddenly, they don’t want to talk any more!). Still, it did feel like being thrown in at the deep-end. I hadn’t been expecting to basically lecture to a class in all but name. But it’s been a valuable experience. To quote a Latin phrase I recently learnt:

“Docendo discimus” – by teaching, we learn

I’m now going to switch to a new topic which I’m titling:

I might be jaded but I’m still finding new lows

After 3 years of teaching I thought I’d see it all. You can find reflections on such here, herehere and here. There are three things I hadn’t personally witnessed while teaching until this term, one was headphones in a lecture, one was the Thursday morning graveyard shift and the lastly was, well, we’ll get to that in a moment.

But yes, to the first, you read that correctly, I gave a seminar where at least 2 students sat through the entire class sat their will earphones in. One was even directly in the middle of the class so frequently in my line of sight. It made me quite cross to be honest. I know why that was the case, because nothing more blatantly says “I’m not interested in what you are saying” than having earbuds in. I think the only way for it to be worse would be someone sat with their fingers in their ears chanting “la, la, la, not listening!”.

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Now, perhaps they didn’t have music playing but still, appearances count for a lot and just because you sat at the front of the class feeling all keen that doesn’t excuse you from the moment when you fall asleep. Here’s a handy diagram:

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On to my second point, the Thursday morning graveyard shift.

For those who haven’t attended University you may not be aware that Wednesday afternoons are given over to sports practice. In reality only a small percentage of students actually take part in team sport so most use it as free or study time. After practices is also when most teams will have their socials so a lot of people go out on a Wednesday night. Wednesday night is also student night at the clubs in town so non-sports clubs will also hold socials then to take advantage of cheep entry and cheep drinks. The result? Thursday morning hangovers wipe out half of the attendance to Thursday morning classes. And that’s if you’re lucky. In the seminars I’ve lead at 11:00 on a Thursday the turn out should be 45 and I’ve regularly only had 12 people. For the other days of the week and other times the attendance has been well over half consistently so it’s definitely something about Thursday mornings.

I think I must have considered the “no one turns up on a Thursday morning” phenomena as a academic urban legend. But I have seen the face of things, my friend, and I can tell you, it is true. Now, let’s quickly move on before I start ranting about low attendance at any other time of the week.

So what is this final thing that so appalled me? What could be worse than everything else I’ve ever witnessed up to this point? Try an entire class of foundation year students talking throughout a lecture or upping sticks mid-way through and simply leaving with no regard for the lecturer. Usually students have the good grace to sit and listen when the lecturer is in full flow. Not that class. Oh no. Appalling.

So now let’s finish up with a quick, quirky section I call…

Just call me Ross Geller…

One of the unique problems with teaching across 2 departments is, ok, it’s not a unique problem at all… but it’s a pretty serious one.

Take my typical Thursday. Arrive at Bay campus, PhD work 9-11, teaching on Bay Campus 11-12, then 1-5 teaching on Singleton Campus.

This leaves less than an 1 hour to get 5 miles across town, eat and drink something and be on time to teach at 1. I currently am sans car and wouldn’t even bother with one anyway because parking costs a fortune at both ends and would add extra time to the whole process. Mercifully the busses have been on my side otherwise I would have been doing an impression of Ross Geller from Friends:

The conclusion

So that’s been my term of teaching so far. I honestly do enjoy teaching but there’s certain aspects that I’ve mentioned (and others that I won’t on a public forum) that attempt to beat the joy out of you however, sometimes there’s a ray of light….

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The author is a PhD student and junior teaching staff member at a well-known Welsh University and all opinions expressed here are her own, especially any negative ones.

If any undergrads are reading this, do me a favour, be nice to teaching staff, most of us are trying our very best.

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