The Professionals

Lecturing is a tough business, and half the job is largely ignored.

This post is stimulated, in part by an article in Physics World on the training of physicists for lecturing, and how they really don’t like it. It turns out it is rather timely since Times Higher Education has also published on the subject, in this case highlighting how universities place little emphasis on the importance of good teaching in promotion.

I taught physics at Cambridge University: small group tutorials and lab classes – I was a little short of a lecturer. I also taught physics as a lecturer at UMIST. I should point out that the following comments are general, I think they would apply equally to any of the older universities.

Mrs SomeBeans is a lecturer in further and higher education, the difference between the two of us is that she had to do a PGCE qualification whereas I was let loose on students with close to zero training.

I did spend an interesting day in lecturer training at Cambridge, a small group of new lecturers, and similar, spent a fairly pleasant day chatting and being video’d presenting short chunks of lectures. I learnt several things on that day:
1. Philosophy lecturers use hardly any overheads.
2. Most of us found lecturing pretty nerve-wracking, one of our number wrote out her lectures in full in longhand to cope.
3. Drinking as a cure for pre-lecture nerves doesn’t work well
4. I spoke like a yokel and was slightly tubbier than I thought!

Round two at my next employers was a bit more involved. I can’t remember much from the two day event, but many of the points from the Physics World post came out. Scientists are typically taught how to lecture together as group, and their point of view is somewhat in collision with those of educationalists who seem to be able to throw out three mutually incompatible theories before breakfast and not be interested in testing any of them.

I have an insight which may help scientists in these situations: outside science the idea of a “theory” has quite a different meaning from that inside science. This paradox is also found in management training. Non-scientists use a “theory” as a device to structure thought and discussion, not as a testable hypothesis. Therefore multiple contradictory, or apparently incompatible theories, can be presented together without the speaker’s head exploding. They’re not generally tested in any sense a scientist would understand, very few people attempt to quantify teaching Method A against teaching Method B. The thing is not to get hung up on the details of the theory, the important bit is being brought together to talk about teaching.

I enjoyed parts of teaching: physics tutorials for second years at Cambridge was something of a steeplechase with the not particularly experienced me, hotly pursued by rather cleverer undergraduate students over problems for which the lecturers did not deign to supply model answers. Exceedingly educational for all concerned. Practical classes were also fun: the first time a student presents you with a bird’s nest of wires on a circuit board it takes about 15 minutes to work out what the problem is, the second time you immediately spot the power isn’t connected to the chip – and students think Dr Hopkinson is a genius.

Lecturing I found pretty grim, except on the odd good day when I got an interesting demonstration working. I was faced with 80 or so students, many of an unresponsive kind. I ploughed through lecture notes on PowerPoint which I found interesting when I was writing but in the lecture theatre I found painfully long winded. Lecturing is the most nerve-wracking sort of public speaking I’ve done, and I suspect many lecturers find it the same. I remember one of my undergraduate lecturers was clearly a bag of nerves even in front of the small and friendly course to which I belonged (and I’m not good at picking up such things).

In a sense lecturing is a throwback, there are so many other ways to learn – and I fear we only teach via lecturing because that’s what we’ve always done. Nowadays it’s easy, although time consuming, to produce a beautiful set of printed lecture notes and distribute the overheads you use: but is it really a good use of time to go through those overheads (which I am sure is what nearly everyone does)? Nowadays I learn by reading, processing and writing (a blog post) or a program.

There’s another thing in Physics World article:

At universities the task is often performed by academics who are much more interested in research and therefore regard teaching as a chore.

This is absolutely true, in my experience. I’ve worked in three universities post-undergraduate, I’ve been interviewed for lectureships in a further six or so. And in everyone the priority has been research not teaching, which is odd because if you look at funding from the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills something like £12billion is directed at teaching and something like £5bn at research.

So why did I write this post: perhaps it’s a reflection of opportunities missed and a time spent chasing the wrong goals. If I did it all again there seem to be so many more ways to talk to other lecturers about teaching. On twitter, in blogs.


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    • Clare Dudman on December 17, 2009 at 9:51 pm

    This certainly reflects my meagre experience too. University teaching seemed a strange world to me after teaching in a High school where everything seemed laid down, in terms of what I was expected to teach, almost to the hour.

    I wonder if universities can learn from schools- especially in terms of active learning, and using different methods.

    • HappyMouffetard on December 18, 2009 at 6:13 am

    Of course, I would use more up to date and technological advanced forms of teaching and learning, but my college blocks blogs (and Twitter :( )

    • SomeBeans on December 18, 2009 at 8:47 am

    @Clare I think it's starting to happen, but as the articles in the THES and Physics World show there are some structural issues to address. Arguable standardisation has gone too far in schools.

    @happymouffetard time for some kicking off, n'est pas? Business case for social media in education coming up…

    • Andy Russell on December 18, 2009 at 9:53 am

    Wow, I had not heard 12Bn:5Bn teaching to research budget ratio before. Why do we care so little about teaching?!?!

    I recently had an interview for a lectureship and took along plans for a couple of new courses I would initiate and a nicely presented teaching portfolio but the interview never really got round to teaching. It was all research and funding.

    • SomeBeans on December 18, 2009 at 10:00 am

    @AndyRussell the £12bn:£5bn funding split I estimated by talking the research council spend + chunk of HEFCE spend to get about £5bn for research. Then the teaching chunk I estimated as being the majority of the HEFCE grant as well as support for students (some of which is explicitly paying for teaching).

    And your interviewing experience fits with my experience and the articles in THES and Physics World.

    • Organic Chemistry on January 12, 2010 at 7:43 am

    Nice post!

    • Dr Aust on March 26, 2010 at 8:23 pm

    Doing lectures to bigger groups (anything over about 50, I would say) is basically a kind of acting performance; it can help to make yourself something of a caricature, and deliberately over-act. Another way to get through it is to focus on a few people at the front, but occasionally scan the room to give them the feeling you are watching…

    I find giving research seminars more nervousness-inducing than lecturing these days, but then I have been at the lecturing a good few years now, and I always was a bit of a frustrated ham actor.

    Two of the best articles I have ever read about teaching are here and here. The first makes the point that wanting to do a good job, and being able to convey to the students that you hope they are getting something out of it, is important; the second makes the point that you have to find a teaching "persona" that you are comfortable in, and that persona differs for different people. The second one is ostensibly about schoolteaching, but I think what it says applies equally well to University.

    • SomeBeans on March 26, 2010 at 8:41 pm

    @Dr_Aust I think I was getting inklings of this being the way to go with lecturing but experienced little local support. Alan Alda gave lecturers acting lessons to help with their lecturing.

    In a way I wish I was still teaching – the combination of blogs and twitter has put me in touch with so many people that could help!

    • Dr Aust on March 26, 2010 at 9:00 pm

    I think what is conceivably most useful about the "teach to teach" courses is that they (hopefully) stress organisation amd preparation before you get into the room to do the teaching. When you start out that is incredibly important. As you do it more you develop a "personal style" almost without noticing, and you don't need quite the same amount of "props".

    The trouble, of course, comes if your personal style is to be rather introverted and boring!! But it is less common than it used to be in Univs since people are now hired off (in part) "ability to give a lucid talk about your research". If you are as interesting as watching paint dry you are unlikely to get the job.

    A lot of the other stuff that pervades "teach to teach" courses in Univs, notably all the guff about "learning styles", is pretty useless, as are most of the endless exhortations to "always make your teaching interactive". The format of the teaching (lecture/large seminar/lab class/small tutorial) largely determines what you do anyway. Plus if you try to go "interactive" in a large lecture before you have had enough experience to do crowd control, pacing etc. it will usually be a disaster. Of course, this is partly just another way of saying

    "find the style/persona you are comfortable in".

  1. […] potential (or achievement) rather than any teaching ability or teaching qualification. Having done both I can’t help thinking that if I’d spent more time learning and doing teaching I’d […]

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