The wandering university teacher
Displaced from my own country, I have been “on the road” now for 7 years. In that time, I have taught at five different universities and colleges with quite different characters. They have varied from the old to the new. Students have come from all over the world. And the staff ‘gave a damn’, or ‘didn’t’.
What my experiences have taught me is that there is a steep learning curve adjusting to the culture of a school. ‘Old’ universities allowed for this by having long settling in periods. People did not have a full teaching load at the outset and their responsibilities in other areas were reduced too. There was often elaborate support outside the college with subsidized housing, sports facilities, etc.
17 ways to get a new lecturer up-to-speed quickly
In these days when colleges churn their staff and try to make every penny out of them that they can, it makes sense to manage the learning curve of their lecturers and professors. This is what I have learned from my moves.
- Allocate some time to learn the culture of your school. Arrange for people to observe various classes and pick up what works and what doesn’t. I had the opportunity to do that at one school and something as simple as walking away from the podium into the audience, where the light was better, seemed to make students with happier. I suspect students are sensitive to lecturer’s facial expressions and they need to see our faces.
- Have communication channels and time available for lecturers to hear and react to students reactions to classes. Whatever method you choose, don’t divert student reactions to junior tutors or managers, neither of whom can pass feedback on effectively. When they receive feedback, positive or negative, their job should be to facilitate a meeting and direct communication. In the days of the intranet, chatter channels where the lecturer is also a member, work quite well.
- Have people in the building who speak the students’ first language and are sufficiently comfortable with other cultures to explain differences in expectations without provoking defensiveness.
- Be honest about the level of your school. As a general rule of thumb, over-ambition kills a teaching initiative. We cannot do more than the skills of students allow. We cannot do more than the equipment and libraries support. The dumbing-down happens not when we get students to take the next step in their learning curve. The dumbing-down happens when we define a highfaluting curriculum and have to pretend students are doing tasks that are way-over-their-heads. This seems to be a fault of weaker schools who are trying to pretend they are something they are not.
- Identify the teaching unit. I taught a 2 hour class in one school and contended with 20 emails a day on its administration. On the whole it is better to let one person start and finish something. If one person cannot manage course from beginning to end, break it up into two courses! What you spend on lecturer costs, you will surely save on admin and managing misunderstandings.
- Keep the degree structure simple. The more students are swirling around registering and deregistering, the more admin you have to do and the harder it is to relate to them as people. When you have complicated systems, the school begins to be run by the admin staff and lecturers increasingly stop being teachers.
And also consider the absolute basics
When I arrive to take up a new appointment, these are the minimum and not very demanding facilities that I need to be effective.
- A clean desk and 10 hour rated chair, a bookshelf, a new internet-enabled computer, and a lockable filing cabinet in an office that I can work in quietly, tutor students and leave my personal possessions and half-written exam papers quite safely.
- A file with the regulations that pertain to the course.
- A clear map of the computer servers and any information that I might need.
- A visit from IT to set up any passwords that I might need.
- Students enrolled and present no later than 10% into the course.
- A list of any other resources I have (budget, printing press, photocopiers, etc.)
- Library access and an opportunity to tour the library.
- Any previously prescribed textbooks and material.
- A written brief on the culture of the school. If it is not written down, then do not be surprised when we trip over it!
- If there is a course manual, have the material presented in one place. What I don’t want to see an idiosyncratic syllabus with a “goals” for students, then a “text”, then questions and model answers, then another set of goals for the lecturer, then another set of suggestions for class. This is nonsense. The text is the model answer and the questions answered by the text are the questions. One manual should do the trick.
- Examinations should have the same assessment process as the in-term assessment. If the students will write essays in the exam, then the continuous assessment should be essays, etc. The examination should reflect the skill we are assessing and that is what students should be practicing during the term and that is what the classes and textbook should model. If students cannot make the step-up to the assessment within a month of the course beginning, then perhaps the course should be redesigned. The following two months should be for a repeat cycle with fresh content but the same skill. The last month should be for revision.
Paradoxically, in the olden days when people moved in and hung about for decades, these facilities might have been in place. Now that ‘managers’ have speeded-up the churn, they can’t always keep up with the business model that they have put in place.
My list of 17 as a gift to you.