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WATE 2020 Commendee: Thomas Crowther (Philosophy)

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

I started teaching when I was a PhD Philosophy student at King’s College, London. I grew very quickly to enjoy teaching. I would never have been able to write the PhD that I did, or develop as a philosopher in the way that I did, had I not been working at becoming a teacher at the same time. Those things were inseparable for me. Teaching was also expected of me, as part of the programme of professional development for a PhD student, which is as I think it should be.

I am sure that every teacher is shaped in many ways by their experiences as a student. As an undergraduate I was lucky enough to be taught by Michael Ayers, one of the world’s most eminent Locke scholars, and Quassim Cassam, who at that time was consolidating his reputation as one of Oxford’s most brilliant young philosophers. In tutorials with Michael, I had my first experience of talking to a teacher whose work I had been reading and writing essays about during the week. I cannot describe the enormous effect that this research-led teaching had on me. Quassim—now a colleague of mine in the Philosophy Department—still remains a model for the rigour and clarity that I try to bring to my Philosophy teaching. These are the individuals who made me want to be a philosopher, and were my formative models of what good philosophy teaching is.

During the early stages of my teaching career, I was also very fortunate to have a number of colleagues who were inspirational models of lucid research-led teaching. Chief among these was Jennifer Hornsby, one of the world’s most outstanding philosophers of mind and action, at Birkbeck, University of London.

I also must here record a debt to Mr Ian Myhre (sadly, now deceased) of Howardian High School, Cardiff, and Dr Evan Davies, of Cardiff High School. I would never have gone to university, let alone gone on to have a career in academia, were it not for these two brilliant and inspiring History teachers.

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

One: Very often ‘less is more’. When I started out lecturing, the temptation that I felt was to think that my job was to cram students’ heads with as much information as I possibly could in the time that was available to me. My development as a teacher of philosophy has been, in large part, a story of my ongoing discovery of the many different ways in which this attitude was a mistake! I think that an important part of this story is about getting better at seeing things from the student’s perspective. Amongst other things, for those of us whose teaching focusses on areas in which we conduct research, it is very easy to underestimate the degree to which things that we find straightforward or basic are difficult for students encountering these ideas for the first time. So, start early with some good habits! Have the confidence to cover less, to spend more time in explanation and discussion, and your students—and you—will get more out of it.

Two: Be clear about what you would like to students to achieve in each unit of teaching. Start with an idea of what you want students to take away from a whole module, and work back from there to lectures and seminars.

There is, of course, a relatively obvious sense in which we all have to know what we want to do on a course of lectures: we have advertised aims and objectives for each of the modules we teach. We know, for example, what topics we want to cover, and what skills we want students to develop over the course of the module. But I have here something a bit different in mind; identifying the narrative thread that holds the whole module together. I try to start my module development with settling on what I want this ‘philosophical story’ to be; a story that embodies the very basic take-home message of the module. This ought to be just a sentence or two, and I know that I am on the right lines with my lecture planning if this aim sounds a bit too simplistic and non-nuanced to my ear! For example, the very basic take-home idea of my 15 CAT first year introduction to Ancient Philosophy module is just this: “There is not a single thing called ‘Ancient Philosophy’, but a succession of different ancient philosophical perspectives. Aristotle’s philosophical programme is an ambitious attempt to combine the ideas of his teacher, Plato, with the work of the early Milesian naturalists, whose work he was also inspired by.” 

From this, I can then work backwards, thinking about what I need to do in each lecture and seminar to enable students to acquire the knowledge and skills to fully understand these ideas, and to be capable of explaining and engaging with different parts of this story in detail. When I started out as a teacher, I was much more focussed on covering things topic by topic, argument by argument, without paying much attention to how things all joined up. This, I think, is again a reflection of the temptation to think that one has to cover everything, or just fill students’ heads with as much information as possible. I say to teachers starting out: Have the confidence to resist that temptation! Pick just one narrative thread and think only about what you need to do to tell just that story, and to communicate the ideas and skills to make it understood, even if that means that there are some things you may have to leave out that you might have otherwise wanted to cover!

(I appreciate that this may not be appropriate or even possible across all disciplines, or even within all the modules of a single discipline. But I hope that at least some of my colleagues find something useful for them in this.)

Three: Last, and most obviously, ‘know your stuff’. When I started out teaching, I taught undergraduate and postgraduate seminars and lecture courses on things that I had worked on as an undergraduate and as a postgraduate, but that didn’t fall within my specific interests as a researcher. Preparing properly to do this teaching was hard and time-consuming work, and to do it well involved getting on top of lots of literature in a relatively short period of time. But doing this was hugely important for me in my development as a teacher and as a researcher, and it will be for you. You will significantly expand your expertise across a range of areas of your wider subject, and you will read lots of interesting and important work that you would not have otherwise done. Preparing for this teaching will end up broadening your horizons as a teacher, but also broadening your horizons as a researcher, in interesting and unexpected ways. Also, there’s nothing quite like working against the clock, week after week, to sharpen your abilities to read new papers and write lectures! It gets easier, I promise!

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

As well as enjoying teaching, I enjoy talking about teaching. So before I got on with dispensing any advice or top tips to more experienced teachers I’d want to know about their own practice, and try to get some useful things from them!

At all points of my career, I have learnt a great deal from talking to other teachers. So perhaps my first bit of advice—a reminder, really!—would be to keep talking, both to pass on your own experiences, but also to keep being open to advice and suggestions about one’s own teaching.

Here, I think it’s important to listen to everybody. I am a reasonably experienced teacher now. But I have regular conversations with my academic mentor, who is even more experienced, about everything from marking undergraduate essays to supervising my PhD students. But I have also learnt a lot from talking to younger teachers who are just starting out in their careers. Talking to younger teachers has enabled me to get rid of some old ideas and made my teaching more effective and enjoyable for me and my students. One of the things I have learnt from some of my younger colleagues—as well as from my students—is that it is possible to use teaching resources such as PowerPoint a bit more creatively and engagingly. Making my lectures a bit more fun doesn’t mean that I have to sacrifice rigour and clarity! So, keep talking about teaching, and be open to suggestions about how you might do things differently!

Part of the challenge involved in being an experienced teacher is keeping our module teaching fresh even if we have been teaching the same module for several years. I am sure that everyone has their own ways of doing this. I have done everything from changing some of the topics that I cover on a module, to covering the same topics but from a different perspective or through using different literature. Or one can freshen things up by devising completely new modules.

Because I teach things that I am writing and thinking about all the time, it is relatively easy to remain engaged and to find things which are interesting and exciting, even if these are subjects I have taught for a while. In my undergraduate lectures, I don’t directly teach my own research. But even if one is not lecturing on one’s own research directly, I think it’s very important for us to communicate our research interests, as well as what we think, in our lectures. One of the things that I continue to see in my students is that they are interested in what our own views are about the things we are teaching, and they want to know about our research. This is something that separates the kind of education that students receive at the University of Warwick from the teaching they received at school. I think that this expert research-led teaching is not only crucial to our offer for prospective students, but also—when we are willing to share it with our undergraduates—in building an atmosphere of community that involves both staff and students

What does being recognised through WATE mean to you?

I am very happy to have been recognized through WATE. I am very proud to be a teacher, and particularly proud to be a teacher at the University of Warwick. I care very much about the work I do in teaching and supporting my students, whether it is inside or outside the classroom. I think any good teacher is constantly thinking about their teaching practice, and thinking of ways in which it could be improved. Being recognized by WATE is evidence that I am doing at least something right! This will invigorate me to develop further as a teacher; particularly in negotiating the challenges of moving to blended learning.

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

I ought to start by saying that I just love the experience of lecturing, particularly to large groups of students. I particularly enjoy teaching large groups of first year students on my first year Ancient Philosophy module. It is a source of genuine excitement to be the person who gets to introduce such extraordinary and brilliant ideas to young minds for the first time. I love the fact that no lecture or seminar, even if one is teaching a module one has taught before, is ever the same. Students are always bringing new things to the lecture theatre or seminar room, from their different perspectives. Each piece of teaching presents new challenges about how best to engage and interact with my students to make myself and the material that I am teaching understood. 

I think every teacher derives an immense amount of satisfaction in seeing students develop over their period of study. I am no different. This is particularly evident in undergraduate teaching. To see students develop their skills, often week by week, and to emerge three years later from the programme with confidence, expertise, articulacy and increased maturity, never stops being rewarding. It is a privilege to play even a small part in this.

What I enjoy most are the experiences that one-on-one teaching and supervision affords. Every teacher, I am sure, will identify with the sense of satisfaction in seeing students suddenly get the point of some tricky idea or argument that they have been struggling with. But the most satisfying bit of teaching, for me, is seeing students getting gripped and excited by the very same ideas that excite me in my own philosophical research. I will simply never get tired of that!

What lessons have you learned from your students?

Where do I begin? As my career has progressed I find that more and more of the way that I teach, and what I teach, reflects what I have learnt from students through formal module evaluation, informal conversation, and from the way that I see students engage with my modules in lectures, seminars and in their assessment work. 

What I have learnt from my students is that the young people in our department are up for an intellectual challenge, and that students have a genuine appetite for those difficult questions about themselves and their place in the world that have kept philosophers busy for the last two and a half thousand years. This is immensely gratifying and reassuring for me as a teacher who has devoted his life to this subject, and makes me confident that things are looking good for the next two and a half thousand years.

But I have also learnt that with this openness to challenge, students increasingly want to be very clear about what the ‘rules of the game’ are. That is, they want us to be very clear about what is required from them in each of their units of assessment, and they want us to be clear about how we will support them to do well. This is absolutely as it should be! And this is particularly important in subjects in the arts, humanities and social science where assessment tasks, by the very nature of the subjects, have a built in ‘open-endedness’.

I think what I have also learnt is that students want to feel like they are part of an academic community. They are interested in us, what we are working on, what we think about the topics we teach, and how we ended up doing this strange thing for a living. I think that engaging with our students about these things, both inside and outside the classroom—and so developing a sense of staff-student community—is a requirement for a healthy department. I’m excited about the various ways that we are trying to do this in the Philosophy Department.

I have also learnt that I am not quite as funny as I would like to think I am.

Enjoyed hearing from Thomas? See the full list of 2020 winners and commendees and read other interviews.