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WATE 2019 Commendee: Michael Mortenson (WMG)

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

My intention was not to really teach, I was much more interested in research. I would not describe myself as an extrovert and had no background in public speaking. During my PhD I thought it would be a good idea to involve myself in some teaching (mostly for the CV), and to my surprise I end up enjoying and finding reward in teaching far more than I had expected. From there on, teaching has become the part of the job I enjoy the most of all, even more than the research. In terms of inspirations, I would have to acknowledge my (now sadly departed) MSc Supervisor here at Warwick, Mr Vernon Blackmore.

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

Seth Godin’s advice on slides: “don't use words. Or, at the most, one or two keywords, in huge type. The rest of the slide is a picture”. When I first started teaching, I made slides the way I was shown slides in classes. Today I make slides to help me get a point across not to do my job for me. In fact, I normally prefer going one step further … start the slide with words, then replace the words with a picture, and then finally replace the slide with an exercise. It’s the exercise that students remember.

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

No matter how good you are at teaching someone, some time will fall asleep in the classroom. That doesn’t mean you did a bad job, maybe they had an essay due in that morning or a party the night before You will come to understand when you’ve done a good job and when you haven’t, and sometimes that’s not reflected by the response of the students in the room.

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

  1. Teaching is about stories not about statistics (and I teach a lot of statistics!)
  2. A single, well thought through and relevant metaphor will explain technical concepts far better than three slides worth of bullet points
  3. Treat the audience with respect. If you’re going to talk about something that is boring, tell them that it’s boring but there is this good reason “X” why they should listen

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

Keep speaking their language. Get terms of reference that are relevant to their lives not yours.

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

Lots of multi-media in slides, lots of up-to-date software in labs, publishing pre-reading as interactive web applications (mostly Jupyter Notebooks) rather than PDFs and Powerpoints. The most important product though is typically my stash of children’s toys to use in exercises

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

Anything that can make the exercises feel more real and the slides feel less boring!

What does winning a WATE award mean to you?

It is a great honour to be commended in the WATE awards, in particular because I am well aware of the strength of the competition.

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

The best part of the job is always the students and particularly I like finding a way to communicate complex topics in ways they can understand. When students grasp an otherwise opaque topic, is when I feel my work finds meaning.

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

The challenge is always finding the time to do what is best for the students and the session. Particularly working in a field like digital technologies, staying up to date is a necessity, but its always hard to balance the need to update with time constraints and without losing working material/sessions.

What lessons have you learned from your students?

Assume nothing! Students will always surprise you (and mostly in a good way!).

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

Time, perseverance, a sense of humour, some subject matter expertise, and the ability never to feel embarrassment

Enjoyed hearing from Michael? See the full list of 2019 winners and read other interviews.