Teaching Your First Seminar
I’m a second year PhD student at the University of Nottingham. Having never done any teaching before, this blog will document my first semester of teaching first year undergraduates. My research focuses on print and political culture during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. I’m teaching on an introductory module which looks at the Early Modern period between 1500 and 1789. My thesis focuses on 1790- 1832, so to some degree I feel a little out of my depth teaching a period I’m not studying myself.
Planning the first seminar
Despite knowing that much of this first seminar would be devoted to getting the students to introduce themselves and explaining how the seminars over the course of the year would run, planning still took longer than I expected. I think one of the problems was that I gave myself too much time to plan. This was perhaps because as I haven’t studied the Early Modern period for a couple of years, I wanted to make sure I felt confident with the subject in case students asked questions relating to it. I’m conscious that, as a postgraduate student, teaching should not take up as much time as I have so far allowed. In preparing for my second seminar, I purposely left myself less time to prepare, and I still had enough material for the class.
As well as explaining the basic outline of the module, what will be required of students, and what topics we would be covering during the rest of the module, I decided it was important to get an idea of what the students knew about the Early Modern period. I know from my own experiences, that much of what students tend to study at GCSE and A Level often centres on Modern history, and so some may be studying Early Modern history for the first time. I therefore asked them to think about the main themes of the period in small groups and to feed back their ideas to everyone else. I found this activity really helped to assess what level the students were at. Finding this out at an early stage is useful as it will give a good indication of what level to pitch future seminars, something which new tutors often struggle with at first.
Despite over planning, I was worried I was going to run out of material, as I covered some things quicker than I had anticipated. Without much experience it’s difficult to judge timings accurately. The group activity meant that the seminar did finish on time, rather than after half an hour as I originally thought it would. I’ve learnt that group activities can be really useful in keeping to time, so I’m intending to base future seminars around group activities and discussion.
As I was one of the last to teach my first seminar amongst my fellow postgraduates, I was able to benefit from their first experiences. Hearing about the problems which they encountered was reassuring, as this meant that I was able to prepare and plan how to address them in the seminar. One of the things that other tutors came up against was that their students were unsure of how to find the set reading or use the library catalogue to access e-books and journals. Building on their experiences, in explaining what students would be required to prepare for the following week, I made sure that they were sure of how they should find the reading. In these early seminars, attempting to foresee problems before they arise and explaining everything from the outset means that I don’t expect to have too many problems later in the semester.
Generally, I felt more awkward during the seminar that I had expected to, although talking to other people about their first seminars, this seems to be fairly normal. Most people commented that they felt overly nervous before and during their first class. When describing what I did during this first seminar, the general consensus amongst friends seems to be that it perhaps went better than I thought it did. I’m hoping that this is true and that my students found the experiences far less awkward than I did! My second seminar seemed to go a lot better. Although I still was nervous about it beforehand, partly based on my experiences of the week before, the actual seminar wasn’t nearly so bad.