What to Expect from your Teaching Induction
I’m Carl, a second year PhD student at the University of Nottingham and I’ll be blogging about my initial forays into teaching History. My own thesis is a reappraisal of the Paulician heresy and my broader interests focus on Byzantine religious and intellectual history, so my research is about as niche as it’s possible to get! I’ve been thinking about teaching for much of the past year, but the fact that it is now upon me has come as a shock to the system. For the last few years my research has been funnelled into increasingly specialist fields and suddenly I’m being asked to broaden my scope to cover a thousand years of medieval history. In a way it feels like turning the clock back, particularly since I’ll be teaching one of the courses I took myself five years ago.
By now, I’ve attended the relevant inductions and training courses and have nothing left to do but begin. The training that I’ve done so far has proved helpful, even if it wasn’t exactly what I expected. One thing that is immediately apparent and was stressed to us at our departmental induction is the importance of teaching to the department’s ethos here at Nottingham. It’s clear that a major overhaul has been conducted in the last few years, bringing about a number of changes since my own days as an undergraduate. The department is making more of an effort to ensure that students are aware of the department’s aims and methods. Personally, I’ve found this approach very helpful, since it has allowed me to place my own teaching in the wider context of the department and the university as a whole. I’ve actually caught myself thinking about why ‘we’ teach in the way that ‘we’ do, which is a refreshing change from being preoccupied with myself. I’ve also spent a lot more time thinking about students rather than myself, which makes things far less intimidating.
But how am I going to teach?
This is something that we have had surprisingly little guidance about, save for a useful session on ‘small group teaching’ which gave advice on tackling common problems in seminar groups. From the outset, the matter of how I should teach has preoccupied me, since I’m not really a typical History PhD (but then who is?). I began university as a mature student who never studied History at GCSE or A Level, so I initially thought that my experience of studying the subject would be completely different from that of the students I’ll be teaching. My main concern was that I would struggle to have reasonable expectations of my students, because I have little idea of what has been expected of them previously. But it has since become clear that all departments struggle with similar issues, given the changes that have been imposed on the education system in recent years. The widening gap in what’s expected of A-Level versus university students is an increasingly significant problem and one that was discussed thoroughly in the induction.
Although our induction focused on theory rather than the practicalities of teaching, all PhD students have been exposed to a variety of teaching styles and have a good idea of what works and what doesn’t. Even before I’ve begun, it is apparent that teaching is a very individual thing that simply can’t be taught. It takes time and experience to put that accumulated knowledge into practice and develop your own teaching style. This is where the departmental community really comes in helpful. I’ve already received kind offers of help from staff and fellow postgraduates, which I’ll no doubt draw upon in the future. I’ll also read a few more articles and go through the videos on this site again. But the thing I expect to draw on most is my own experience. I had virtually no knowledge of medieval history prior to taking this course as an undergraduate. In that sense, I can empathise with my students a good deal and I hope to transmit some of the reasons why I’m still studying this fascinating discipline five years later. Of course I’ll make some mistakes in the meantime – and knowing me I’ll make more than I really need to – but hopefully by sharing these with other new tutors I’ll help them avoid similar pitfalls.