When it was first confirmed that I would be doing a PhD, I had not thought about teaching at all. I had decided that it was something to look into for the second or the third year – when I know a bit more about the subject area and what gaps there are in the current line-up of modules – and did not worry about it so much.
Nine months later, I have mixed feelings about the fact that I will not be undertaking any pedagogic activities next year, due to a fairly extensive fieldwork schedule. (And not because of ineptitude. One hopes.)
Not long after I had been approved by the grant committee, I received an email asking if I would consider a position as teaching assistant on the introductory module of the Chinese Studies bachelor’s degree. I would be helping to plan and run the Study Skills Sessions – supplementary classes in study skills (referencing, writing essays, constructing arguments, critical engagement with literature, and so on) – and marking half of all the assignments. The hours were not that many, and I thought that a bit of extra cash would not come amiss, so I said yes…
This is what I have learned since:
- Even if you are teaching/assisting a supplementary module on the side of a main module, audit the main module. You will learn not only the about the subject, but also about how students engage (or do not engage) with each topic in the classroom environment. It should go without saying that you will also feel much steadier when marking essays on said topics, even if your main marking criteria are mostly based on critical engagement and argument construction rather than content.
- Address the students and they will talk to you. Perhaps I had brought some of my bad habits from secondary school lesson planning with me. Back then, they were mostly based on communicating the key ideas on the curriculum to the students, and I was inclined to present them all in a mini-lecture before doling out the activities. Allowing for questions and interacting with students at regular intervals keeps the class varied and more interesting. And stop students from falling asleep.
- You will care too much, part one. I certainly found that I wanted to know how I was doing, with regards to teaching methods and effective communication. For this, you can either wait until student feedback surveys are enforced; try to decipher what the students think from their behaviour, or; let it go. I suggest you let it go for now.
- Marking is a massive pain in the backside. Between good essays that drop marks due to late submission, the massively varying standard of English, the essays displaying a blazingly obvious political disposition, and who knows what else, marking can be an infuriating process.
- There is a considerable possibility that you will not be the “type” of marker you think are. I thought I would lean towards being nice in my comments, and be generous with the marks. I did and am not.
- You will care too much, part two. I found myself writing mini English grammar tutorials in the comments. This was time consuming, and I did not get paid enough to do that.
- You will be incredibly happy when you stamp a shiny 70+ % mark on a piece of work. Even though it has no impact whatsoever on your own project.
- Be prepared and brace yourself when it’s time for post-return-of-marks essay surgery. For the students, these were optional, and the students who do turn up are invariably those who really care about their mark. This is not to say that those who did not turn up do not care about their mark, only that the ones who do turn up, do. And they will have many questions both on the comments, and how they can improve.
- You learn about your own styles and preferences too. Write them down for future reference. (“Talk too fast”, “semi-colon abuse”, “more interested in politics than previously thought”, etc.)
- When you find yourself wanting to, say, write little grammar-tutorials in the comments, remember that, in the end, your main line of work is as a doctoral researcher, and your teaching duties should not interfere with your project.
However, even if you do not learn anything else, you will be flung around campus so much due to last-minute room changes, that you’ll be the best oriented person in your group by the end of the year.