Thursday, May 15, 2008

On Being Observed

Graduate students often want to do sessional teaching at my university, and I can see why. It's fun; it makes you feel part of the department; it's a good component of your professional development; it forces you to learn things and develop new forms of expertise; it introduces you to staff and other students; and it pays ... a little.

But the payrates are wildly incommensurate with the work involved; the timetable spreads your teaching over a couple of days; there is no guarantee that having developed your classes in one subject that you'll ever get to teach it again; and the inevitable nervousness about teaching out of your comfort zone means that teaching absorbs disproportionate amounts of preparation time, as well as nervous, social and intellectual energy.

People's needs vary, of course; and while it suits some graduates to do as much teaching as they can, there is a powerful argument that says you should do a little teaching, do it well, and fully, and develop a teaching portfolio, and then go back to your thesis.

This is what one of my students is doing this semester, and today she took up my invitation to observe her tutorial, so that I can write a reference about her teaching practice. She was terrific, though she said later my presence made her a little nervous. You would not have known, though: this was a large group of 20 students, and she was organised, responsive, full of ideas, while letting them also develop their own thoughts. She kept the pace and the topics of discussion varied, too. I was quite inspired, watching her. For various reasons I haven't taken tutorials for a couple of years, but often used to struggle to keep this wonderful sense of order and calmness I saw today. I was so impressed that she was willing to let me come along: not sure I would ever had had the courage to do that when I was a graduate student. The tutorial room is such a private space, though I bet my colleagues and I would all love to be a fly on the wall and get a chance to observe each other!

Then this afternoon, Joel had a rehearsal for his cello exam, with Charles, his piano teacher, working as his accompanist. He was a little disconcerted to find I was going to be in the room (I often go for a walk, or nip to the supermarket), but all three of them (student, cello teacher, accompanist) worked brilliantly, in spite of my presence in Charles' studio. I'm so impressed with these young women, his teachers. Lauren and Charles are both so patient, but also so serious with Joel and his music. I felt quite privileged to observe the three of them working so hard.

It's one thing to lecture — and I have really loved lecturing in the Medievalism subject this semester — but tutoring, and teaching in smaller groups, or one to one, is a different challenge altogether. What a rare pleasure to see it being done, and done so well today.

2 comments:

lucy tartan said...

Point well and truly taken about doing a little teaching and then going back to the thesis - but on the other hand, in the current climate, once you finish your thesis, you will not be considered for work at most Australian universities, because you cost more.

I decided to go fast on the teaching and slow on the thesis, and while it hasn't been ideal in lots of ways, at least I do have a job.

Stephanie Trigg said...

Lucy, there's no easy answer to this. Yes, you can get some teaching work but tenured positions are nearly always awarded primarily on publications. Sadly, teaching experience barely stacks up against one or two high status publications.

So the other problematic nexus is the thesis/publication one. Now that universities are being funded on "timely" completions, we'll find graduate students being pushed to submit within the 3.5 years, but to do that usually means not taking time out to develop any publications along the way (let alone pick up another language), which then makes it virtually impossible to be competitive for a post-doctoral research position.

So yes, that's a possible trajectory, to shore up some teaching to pay the rent after the thesis while you try and publish.

There's nothing straightforward or easy about this at all...