Tim Squirrell is a PhD candidate in Science and Technology Studies at the University of Edinburgh. His research focusses on construction and negotiation of authority and expertise on the internet, with a focus on fitness and nutrition communities.

On Teaching

On Teaching

I want to talk about some of the experiences I've had teaching this year: anxieties, rewards, concerns, and maybe a tiny bit of advice for any other tutors reading. If you have any of the latter, I'd love to hear from you.

Last night I had the honour and pleasure of attending the EUSA Teaching Awards and being awarded the prize for Best Student Who Tutors. One of my students who nominated me was there, and she told me her first memory of my tutorials. On my first day of teaching, I walked into my third tutorial of five and told my students, "I've already had such a mare - I swore in my first tutorial, so I'd better not fuck this one up.

...

Shit."

EUSA-teaching-award

Apparently that was far from the slip-up I thought it was. Instead of making my students think that I was unprofessional and borderline incompetent, I had accidentally broken down one of the barriers between staff and students that can make tutorials such an awkward drudge for so many.

I think I realised I must have done something right, because I swore my way through another two semesters of tutorials and, I am reliably informed, never once sat in a chair properly. I would sit on the back with my feet on the seat; sit on the chair with my feet on the desk; stand up and pace whilst talking rapidly; sit on the desk and alternate between taking swigs from a can of budget energy drink and trying to engage my students in a conversation about tuition fees in higher education. In short, I wasn't particularly good at conforming to social norms. I'm uncertain I ever will be.

But what I've noticed over the course of this year is that this doesn't necessarily matter. It doesn't have to matter*. Other things that didn't matter were the fact that I didn't have a formal background in either Sociology or Social Policy - the two subjects I've taught this year - when I began, and that I didn't always have much of a clue what I was doing.

What mattered was that every time I went into a day of teaching, I would pump myself up and try to become as enthusiastic as possible about the subject we were covering that day. Capitalism, patriarchy, NHS reform, self-presentation, collective action problems - all of them were equally interesting and equally worthy of being discussed with energy, even if the readings weren't always the most engrossing material to come out of the ivory tower.

And I think my students responded to it. I think I made a fool of myself. I know I made a fool of myself. I would rattle off analysis of various issues with nerdy enthusiasm and get way too excited about marginal tax rates. But aside from a few bum lessons, I honestly think that a lot of my students got a lot out of the tutorials they had this year.

That's important. There is nothing more miserable than a 9AM tutorial in which you don't care, you don't want to be awake, and it's very obvious that your tutor would rather be asleep as well. I've had my fair share of awkward, silent hours, punctuated only by that one student (me, usually) who couldn't stand the quiet and so would try their best to engage with the tutor and hope to god that somebody else would join in.

I was worried that I was Doing It Wrong - that my style of teaching didn't work and that everyone wished they had someone else; that my marking would be insufficient and my feedback too harsh or too impenetrable; that my bosses would think I was disorganised and unprofessional and lazy.

I think to some extent I was proven wrong by the testimonials I had from some of my students last night. Out of around 250 nominees for this award, I managed to take it home. That was moving, and deeply gratifying. I still have an awful lot of imposter syndrome: I worry every week that my students will realise that I have no idea what I'm talking about, that I'm chatting shit and I'm making it up as I go along and there's really no reason to listen to me. I worry that my bosses will suddenly wake up from the fever dream they've been having where they employ me to stand up in front of 15 people multiple times a week and attempt to push them into thinking about something that I'm not sure I have settled opinions on myself.

If I feel like this, though, it must be even harder for the teachers who don't get that kind of validation. Training is extremely sparse for new tutors: at best, you're given an hour or two of workshops, you come to the lectures, and get a couple of exercises for the first few tutorials to start you off with your students. At worst, it's a blank slate and you're essentially given free reign. It's rough not knowing whether you're doing well, and not getting much in the way of feedback (other than the moderation you get on your marking, which is helpful) and if you feel like you're drowning then self-improvement can be tough.

There are very few tools to get better, and it's hard to know where you're going wrong if your students are sitting in silence and won't give you anything at all to work with for an hour every week. Tell other tutors or lecturers about it and the response is usually to give you some comfort and solidarity, telling you that every group is different and not all of them will be as chatty or engaged as others.

But surely our job is to try and make them all engaged? I know that they're undergraduates and should be willing to come along and learn and work hard, but that doesn't mean they always know what to say, or that they don't have confidence issues of their own. Rather than putting silence or awkwardness down to group dynamics, it would be great if we could share strategies or tips on how to break that down and make every session one that's at least moderately productive.

For example, I was having trouble getting students to talk as a whole group, and I've had a great deal of success with pairing them all off with each other to discuss a question and come up with some answers before feeding back to the group as a whole. Sometimes they won't talk about the thing they're meant to talk about, and that's a hit you have to take, but it does mean that you give everyone an opportunity to engage with the ideas in the readings and the course, and that there's also opportunities to stay quiet if you don't want to talk in front of the whole class (but equally you can say things if you're feeling confident that week). Breaking down the material into smaller chunks is always helpful, too - I try to make sure that each week's topic is broken down into 3 or 4 questions that get discussed over 5-15 minute periods. Similarly, when we're feeding back to the group I try to never tell students that they're wrong - not just because I'm not sure there are objectively any "wrong" answers, but because if you put someone down in front of a class you risk them never speaking up again. Instead, I usually ask them questions to try and get them to explore the things they've said a little more deeply and critically, or try to get them into dialogue with others. It doesn't always work. Sometimes I'm a bit embarrassed. It's better than nothing.

I've been inundated with incredibly kind and touching messages from friends since last night. I didn't know that taking tutorials as a PhD student and doing them well was something that was valued so highly. I think it goes to show that there is appetite out there for engaging lessons, and that students really do appreciate the work that teachers put in. I might have won an award, and I'm eternally grateful to all of the people who made that possible, who believed in my abilities and encouraged me down this path, as well as the students who felt my teaching was worthy of being nominated. But I'm still insecure. I still feel like I'm muddling through, making up strategies to deal with problems I didn't know would occur as I go along. But I don't think I'm fucking it up too much.

 

*I'm deeply aware that there is some element of privilege in this, insofar as my age/appearance/accent/other immutable characteristics are in many ways conducive to a more relaxed attitude towards social norms and mores. I'm not sure how to overcome this, but I want to flag it up.

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