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WATE 2017 highly commended: Amanda Hopkins (Modern Languages and Cultures)

Why did you start teaching? What (or who) inspired you?

Communicating enthusiasm for and understanding of aspects of my discipline. I started teaching as a PhD student, discovered it was like office management (which I’d done for a few years): communicating information, but with much more interesting material…

What pearls of wisdom have you been given over the years that have helped you with your teaching?

The best teacher I ever had was at school, and he never actually taught me in a class. He was funny and good humoured and fair and approachable and a defender of the weak, and the least judgmental person I’ve ever known. I don’t think he gave me any specific pearls of wisdom, but his attitude towards his students (pupils, we were in those days) and indeed people in general, remains something I aspire to.

Is there anything you wish someone had told you when you started out?

Lots of things! From the teaching end and the unofficial mentoring end, starting-out university teachers - even postgraduate students - are largely left to get on with it! Yes, there’s now a qualification, but that doesn’t always help with the day-to-day hands-on-ness! I thought it was because I was older than most, but my experience of having newbies approach me for help suggests not (as well as suggesting that some find their module convenors unapproachable…). I was lucky enough to come with a lot of administrative and clerical experience; many have no idea how to manage (or effectively manage) the non-teaching aspects of the work, or to deal with difficult students. (Many years of campaigning about this have finally been taken on board in a department I no longer work for, where the practice of holding regular module meetings has now been adopted. Demonstrably, it helps the newbies.)

If you were mentoring a first-time teacher, what three bits of advice would you give?

  1. Welcome feedback, learn from it, use it.
  2. Communicating context is crucial! Students come with much less understanding and knowledge than you’d think possible. Many lack any genuine sense of history/the practicalities and realities of the past, and have some very odd preconceptions. Almost no-one comes with basic religious knowledge (making much of English Literature a challenge).
  3. Try to remember what it was like being an undergraduate. What teaching worked for you? What didn’t? What was difficult and why? I learned vast amounts simply by skimming my undergraduate notes and remembering the teachers, the courses (as they were then) and how I responded. Shape your teaching approach accordingly.

What advice/top tips would you give to more experienced teachers?

See above on communicating context; also it’s important to keep up to speed on what students are taught at school – in some ways, it’s less every year, and those gaps need filling so undergraduate learning makes sense.

What new technologies are you currently using to enhance your teaching? What are your top tips for using them?

Unexpectedly, as a bit of a technobuff, I find I’m using less as the years pass, rather than more: too many technologies are promoted as wonderful, but simply don’t replace the basics, which are the important thing, but some take up far more time than they are worth. Some technologies may be 'hot', but actually turn out to be red herrings that diffuse the focus, give students yet another thing to juggle/think about and end up confusing rather than enhancing.

So: top tip is evaluate, don’t blindly embrace - and also don’t assume all students are up to speed with technology, because lots really, really aren’t…

What new or future teaching innovations are you looking forward to?

I quite like the idea of incorporating more enquiry-based learning, not least because it’s something that demonstrates to employers a student’s ability to work independently, self-organise, develop a project, etc.

What do you enjoy the most about teaching? What’s the best part of your job?

The students. Learning for teaching – new texts, topics, worlds… Learning from the students. Teaching them to see what’s there, to question, to challenge… The sheer joy of the Eureka moments…

What do you feel are the biggest challenges faced by teaching staff? How do you overcome these?

Bizarrely, it’s the seemingly little things that take up so much time and cause so much difficulty. One is a relentless, but thoughtless, drive towards technological processes, which means working with multiple systems that do not communicate with each other, requiring that effort be duplicated. Why do we have to input marks to Tabula and again to EMU, for instance? Clunky systems that take you through a time-wasting scenic route of four or five screens when a single A–B journey should be perfectly possible. Systems designed by people who don’t actually use them…

One-size-fits-all technology… Square pegs, round holes… Moodle does not work for everything…

Another is logistics: trying to cross the breadth of campus (and somehow build in time for a ‘comfort break’) in the ten minutes between one lecture and the next – you try getting from Humanities floor 5 or Oculus to upstairs in Ramphal in good time, all the time swimming against the tide… Equally, trying to find solutions to seminars that are constantly disrupted by students arriving late, having had their previous class miles away. I don’t have solutions: these problems are imposed on teaching staff and can only be solved by the imposers…

Increasingly sophisticated software/databases should resolve out issues, not add to them.

What lessons have you learned from your students?

Students have shown me ways into texts I disliked and effective ways of using group dynamics. Finding ways to resolve students’ specific difficulties has produced helpful methods to communicate more widely.

If you could write a recipe for the perfect inspiring teacher, what ingredients would you need?

Hard work, and more hard work. Preparedness. Advance preparation, not last-minute rush. Imagination. Workable balance of compassion and hardheadedness. Humour. Understanding that every year-group is different, however much it may resemble earlier ones. Efficiency. Flexibility. Ability to deal with the unexpected. Willingness to say ‘I don’t know’ (and show students it’s OK not to know sometimes…). An understanding that Teaching is not Research’s poor relation.

Enjoyed hearing from Amanda? See the full list of 2017 winners and read other interviews.