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WATE 2019 Commendee: David Woods (Philosophy)

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

I just never tire of talking about Philosophy! Especially with people who are new to the ideas. It gives me an opportunity to defamiliarize and reintroduce myself to long studied topics. Teaching is simply the best way to talk about Philosophy regularly and in real time.

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

“There are no absolutes” – from my PhD supervisor when I first started marking work. What he meant was that there’s not a Platonic Idea of an answer out there just waiting to be found; there are multiple ways to build a good answer. I now pass on this pearl to students when they worry that they’ve not been comprehensive in their coverage of a topic, haven’t done enough or covered all the right things.

“Enjoy the silences” – from a peer observation. Not, hopefully, awkward silences! But allowing student time to think before they respond. It’s hard not to interpret a silence as disengagement, but sometime it’s just the opposite.

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

Don’t be afraid to be honest. If you don’t know the answer or hear something you’ve never heard before, say so. Trustworthiness depends on transparency, not infallibility.

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

(1) Don’t feel obliged to know all the answers (see above). (2) Wherever possible, return an open discussion back to the students before making your own contribution: “What do you think? (with an individual), “What do we think?” (in a group). (3) Enjoy it! Have fun! Enthusiasm is infectious, and also not cosmetic; it’s instrumental for learning (and it feels good).

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

Don’t forget to have fun.

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

I’ve recently started audio-video recording my lectures with Lecture Capture, when I’m using the high tech Oculus rooms. There are clear spikes in viewings of lecture relevant to assessments, suggesting that students do use them to prepare; and, anecdotally, some of my students have reported that re-watching a lecture after attending it helps with understanding and retention.

What does winning a WATE award mean to you?

Along with qualifications, teaching awards are essential markers of high quality teaching. Without them, a reputation for good teaching can’t travel beyond the classroom and common room. This is important for academics like myself, who are historically stronger in teaching than in research.

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

Talking about my subject, Philosophy! My favourite classes are always the one where interactivity is highest. It’s a thrill when even I’m not sure where a discussion will take us. I also enjoy seeing students succeed in the face of challenges (academic or otherwise) and outperforming their personal expectations.

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

(1) Growing a global academic reputation equivalent to what can be achieved in research. This, again, is why forms of recognition like WATE are important. (2) Adequately supporting students who feel under more pressure than ever to succeed. I find that making time to meet students in person helps; it’s all too easy for someone to spiral with worry when they’re left to their own devices. (3) Resisting the instrumentalization of higher education that student have (understandably) internalised as a result of the high cost of education. Making learning enjoyable helps, as it becomes less important where it leads to.

What lessons have you learned from your students?

Behind every question is an insight, and ahead of it is a decision. When a student asks, “Should I do x or y?” I first try to make clear to them that, just by virtue of asking the question, they’ve shown that they’ve noticed a problem where they have to make a decision. Even a question like, “I don’t understand x” is, paradoxically, a form of understanding, only a reflexive one; even this is based on an insight into the student’s own learning, and requires a decision (‘Is it me? If it is me, what am I missing and where can I find it? Or is it not me, and x is objectively problematic? Can I articulate this problem as an objection?). Although I always encourage students to seek help when they need it, by teaching students to reflect on the questions that occur to them, identify the insights they are based on, and the decisions they need to make in light of them, I hope I can help them to develop greater confidence and independence in future.

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

I take a lot of inspiration from something the great abstract painter and art teacher Josef Albers wrote in his book Interaction of Color, which I only recently discovered:

‘In the end, teaching is a matter not of method but of heart. Therefore, the most decisive factor is the teacher’s personality. His enthusiastic concern with the student’s growth counts more than how much he knows. It is well known that “the teacher is always right,” but rarely does this fact elicit respect or sympathy; even less often does it prove competence and authority.

But the teacher is actually right and always will gain confidence when he admits that he does not know, that he cannot decide, and as it often is with color, that he is unable to make a choice or give advice.

Besides, good teaching is more a giving of right questions than a giving of right answers.’

Although of course, paradoxically, the teacher must know a lot to know this much, I take from Albers’s view on teaching three things which I think are essential – at least to my teaching – though not exhaustive.

  • Personality. This does not mean being a ‘big’ personality, an extrovert rather than an introvert, but it does mean that personality determines a lot of what is possible in one’s teaching style. I’m lucky that I’m relatively high energy, chatty, upbeat and gregarious; but I’ve seen teachers use low energy and tranquilly, as well as irony, spikiness and laconicism, to equally excellent effect.
  • Enthusiasm. Again, I don’t believe that this has to mean high energy; it can mean high intensity: it is clear to the student that, to the teacher, what they teach really deeply matters to them. I’d even say this includes some form of affection: the teacher cares about what the student learns.
  • Transparency. It’s a bad idea to pretend you know all the answers. For a start, no one does. Secondly, so long as you are still keen to find the answers, and treat students as fellow traveller in this regard, you can communicate not just the content of learning but also its spirit.

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