Wednesday, 2 May 2012

On Teaching - Q&A

Kate Katigbak (Durham) and Nicole Bush (Northumbria) share their experience of working as teaching assistants on undergraduate modules, and discuss some of the issues and benefits which they've encountered.

What did you find difficult in your first experience as a teaching assistant, and how did you try to improve this?

Kate: From my very limited experience leading tutorials--in other words, leading discussion groups meant to enhance and enforce lectures--the most important lesson I learned was to come over-prepared, but with very loose expectations about what students will want to talk about. I certainly came in with a few major themes or ideas in mind that I wanted to reinforce, but having the expectation that those things would come up naturally, or in ways that I personally found interesting, had a tendency to backfire with me. There was one instance when I was very certain that everyone would be just as interested in the creation of the novel as a genre as I was, but as it turned out, most people wanted to mostly talk about how Robinson Crusoe was an eminently practical guy. I relied entirely too much on my expectations about how the class would read the novel, and not on being prepared for many different reactions.

Nicole: This was an issue for me, too. My first class was plotted from beginning to end, and although I went in with the best intentions to let discussion take its own twists and turns, I did rely far too much on the lesson plan in front of me. This is a natural reaction, of course, and especially so with the first seminars that you lead, but planning and attempting to cover each important aspect is bound to go wrong as some point!

Kate: This also feeds into the value of being over-prepared in general. It was very useful to have on hand lots of interesting factoids that could maybe inspire further reading, or just greater appreciation for context. The tutorials that I taught this year only last an hour, which meant that I wanted to spend as little time lecturing as possible, and as much time getting the students talking and thinking amongst themselves. Therefore, having long explanations and background information to explicate wasn’t helpful, but having anecdotes to spark discussion or reinforce interest definitely was.

Nicole: Kate’s point here is really important, and one that I’ll certainly try to remember when preparing and teaching future classes myself. As much as there was often lots of highly relevant (and hugely interesting) contextual information that I wanted to share with my first-year class, simply lecturing and feeding the facts just doesn’t work in the classroom environment. This doesn’t mean that you can’t wander off the set path and bring in snippets of great background information, but does mean you have to be careful to make sure your enthusiasm is always underpinned with an awareness of how much context is enough for each particular class.

Kate: I definitely agree with Nicole that context is extremely important but has to be meted out carefully. I think maybe what I’ll do next year is attend a few more of the lectures that go along with my own classes, so that I know exactly how much context the students have already had, and how much I can then aim to include/exclude.

How did you manage the classroom, specifically in instigating and sustaining discussion?

Nicole: Some of the most helpful advice from my teaching mentor concerned dealing with these gaps in the discussion. Their point was that you should let students create their own list. When I thought about the implications of this, it made perfect sense. I came to the seminar with pre-prepared ‘answers’, and so naturally I’m going to try to tease these out of the group through their discussion. While this is fine as a teaching preparation, it’s important to (figuratively) leave this list to the side in the classroom. When discussion breaks, it’s then fine to pause and let the group ‘create their own list’, which they inevitably will: someone will point towards a new topic or raise a question, and in this way the ‘list’ of discussion points is renewed by the group itself, and is only guided by the tutor.

Kate: I like this idea of the students’ own list! That’s definitely an excellent thing to keep in mind, and probably takes some of the pressure off of new teachers, which is appreciated. I find that I’m a very self-conscious teacher. I’m overly aware of when a group runs out of proverbial steam, and I automatically assume that it’s my fault and that I need to fix it by getting things going on the same topic again, for the sake of smoothness. This, I think, is a mistake--if one topic gets exhausted, it’s more okay than I tend to think it is to make an awkward transition into something else entirely. If I’m remembering my undergrad experience correctly, that sort of gear change can be a relief to the group.

How have you had to adapt your skills as a researcher to suit the specific requirements of teaching an undergraduate class?

Kate: I got some really good advice from the professor who observed my last tutorial--he said something to the effect of, have a spectrum of questions to ask, from broad to specific, and dole them out in accordance to how responsive the class is to each of them. It can be great to start out with a broad, ambitious question like, “How did subjectivity inform the narrative?”, but if no one’s going to answer it, then have a particular passage ready to say, “Well, how does the subjectivity of the narrator work here?” When I think about that, I realise that I’m really going to have to re-train a lot of my close reading skills--as a researcher, I read for evidence, I read for passages that specifically speak to an idea that I’m looking for. But when looking for passages that teach, I think it’s probably more useful to find something problematic in the text, or exemplary such that it can speak to the whole of the text at large--something that can really spark debate or evoke something big and not necessarily answer a question, but can begin to illuminate the edges of one.

Nicole: It is certainly a new experience to reread a text in preparation for teaching. Like Kate says, sometimes it can go against our other methods as researchers. Passages or themes we’d usually gloss over in our own reading have to be considered for the spectrum of issues that they could present to a class coming new to a particular text or subject, and this requires a completely different type of engagement. But the two do really compliment each other: my experience as a teaching assistant has altered how I think of the texts that I’ve taught so far, and I’d like to think that my specific area of research as a PhD student has informed my teaching too, and hopefully brought an interesting perspective to the classes I’ve taught.


If anyone else wants to share their teaching experiences, please feel free to do so in the comments!


  1. What fascinating and helpful insights! I am a first-year English Studies tutor at Stellenbosch University in South Africa, currently busy with my MA degree (broadly on teaching Victorian literature at first-year level in 21th century SA). This is my second year of tutoring, but I find myself having trouble negotiating between explaining/simplifying the material and pushing the students to sink or swim. I am worried that I "dumb down" too much, but a lot of the time I get the idea my students have no idea what I'm saying when I raise the tone a bit. I am more or less certain, for example, that I'll get nothing but blank stares if I pose a question such as “How did subjectivity inform the narrative?” above. If I may ask, are you experiencing the same problem, and how are you dealing with it? Also, how are you dealing with groups that are extremely varied in academic ability?

  2. The whole 'dumbing down' issue is always a struggle, I agree. The impression I've gotten from other people is that our perspective on what is too dumbed down is always skewed, particularly in our early careers, and so what we think is dumbed down is really fairly on-the-mark, as it were. I personally try, again, to not to go in with any expectations about what students will offer, because sometimes even the really smart ones will stay silent if they're not sure of themselves, so I just try and go with the flow and let the students set the tenor of the discussion. If they're really enthusiastic about one character or another, for example, then maybe I can try and contextualise that character a bit, or maybe steer the discussion of personality into a discussion of why the author writes the character with that personality, but if the students don't take the bait, then you just have to let that happen and maybe try a different tactic. Maybe that doesn't address the issue of varied ability very well, but it's the best I can do so far!

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