Teaching can be one of the most rewarding academic activities. At its best it complements and extends your knowledge of your own and cognate fields, so that the distinction between ‘research’ and ‘teaching’ blurs or evaporates. It helps you get involved in a department and out of the intellectual solipsism of your research, and it demonstrates collegiality. But it can easily consume large amounts of time and energy and, if either tutor or student lack enthusiasm, it can be a painful experience for both sides. So when should you teach, how much of it should you do, and what might be good to think about before undertaking it?
1. Teaching involves more than ‘contact time’ in the classroom
Time to prepare material, mark work, and advise students should all be taken into account when considering whether to teach or how much of it to do (at the points in your career when this is optional). You need to commit to a reasonable amount of preparation, since you will often be teaching material beyond your own specialism. Often people over-prepare, especially when starting out. However, reasonably thorough preparation – especially of any material which you are likely to have to teach in any academic job (e.g. broad survey courses) – will pay dividends later on.
When teaching in conjunction with a PhD, or on a predominantly research-based contract, it might be useful to set aside a specified time (e.g. a day per week) for tutoring and preparation; marking may come on a regular basis or in irregular larger blocks. Your payment for teaching will be for contact time with some assumption about marking and preparatory work built into this; you won’t get paid for the actual amount of preparatory work which you do.
2. Teaching is delivered in different modes – work out which you are doing at any one time
A tutorial or seminar is not a lecture. A lecture involves (predominantly) the tutor speaking; in a seminar, the tutor should guide and facilitate student discussion – not give another lecture. Think of strategies to get students speaking – to each other as well as to you. Be aware that this will inevitably work better and more naturally with some groups than with others!
3. Teaching involves enabling learning as well as delivering content
Encourage students to think about acquiring skills as well as mastering data. Early on this might involve advice on reading, note-taking, planning, and writing essays; in the latter stages of a course it might also include revision skills and exam technique. As the student progresses through their degree one might add analysis and critique of different historiographical views, and / or primary source work. Encourage development, but don’t demand the impossible; when setting reading, consider the speed someone unfamiliar with the field will work at. (Think about the speed at which you read as a PhD student compared to when you were a first year undergraduate.)
This is especially important when you come to design modules or courses of your own, which you might do as an early career scholar: what skills (‘learning outcomes’) are you trying to convey?
4. Work out where your contribution fits into the broader course / curriculum
If you do this, it will help your students as well. Encourage them to join up material they have encountered in lectures and seminars and their own reading (which are not always perfectly synchronised), and help them think about the general themes of the course. They may sometimes remember a mass of detail, but you are often able to see the bigger picture of the period or topic of study.
Be aware too of the wider pastoral support available to students. Their academic work may – or may not – reflect any other issues going on in their life. You may not be formally responsible for their pastoral welfare, but sometimes a tutor is the first point of contact a student turns to if problems arise. You should know where to direct them to and your duties of care and confidentiality towards anyone you are teaching.
5. Offer positive as well as critical feedback
Be constructive as well as criticising work. A student might need some morale boosting through seeing what the good points are in an essay which hasn’t achieved a great mark. Conversely, some may want to know how to improve an essay which has got a low to mid-first-class mark. This is especially important to think about when giving grades near class boundaries. Encourage students to see even summative (formally assessed) work as formative (a piece to learn from in the future).
6. Seek feedback on your own teaching
A mentor is quite useful early on (and may be an institutional requirement) to offer suggestions and advice. This will probably be a course coordinator, or a more senior member of the department – and is often not your own supervisor. Institutions should offer training to new tutors, and pass student feedback on to them as well. More informally, talk to fellow tutors and academics about their teaching experiences, to exchange ideas and good practice.
The Royal Historical Society has issued a Code of Conduct for the employment of temporary teaching staff in history: http://royalhistsoc.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/CodeofGoodPractice.pdf
More advice about teaching is available on the Higher Education Academy’s website: https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/