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WATE 2020 Commendee: Paul Jenkins (Statistics)

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

I’ve had some fantastic, dedicated teachers throughout my education, and I have to mention my old maths teacher Mr Elvidge and the support of my parents. I’m also constantly inspired by my colleagues in the Dept of Statistics for their zeal in thinking about how to improve the teaching of our subject and how to help each other enhance their teaching practice.

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

Be well-prepared when teaching: “A hair divides what is false and true.” No surprise this ancient remark was written by a mathematician. One symbol out of place can completely change what you are trying to say.

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

Just how tiring it can be. For a long time after I’d begun teaching, I would struggle through the rest of the afternoon following a lecture. Now it’s getting a bit easier. I don’t envy colleagues in some universities who are asked to provide two or three times as much teaching as us, where it is surely much more difficult to devote sufficient energy.

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

  1. Slow down.
  2. Slow down more than that.
  3. I’ve been practising teaching at Warwick for eight years, and I still talk too quickly, so try slowing down.

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

I’ve watched some amazing teachers with more experience than I. (Professor Kendall can make a stochastic process really come alive!) I’d hesitate to offer unsolicited advice, except to say: don’t forget to help show the rest of us how it’s done.

What does being recognised through WATE mean to you?

I’m really honoured to be recognised in this way. That some students and staff went out of their way to nominate me is quite humbling. I’m also very grateful to all the support given to me – administrative, motivational, collegial – to enable me to teach effectively, and I see this nomination as a recognition of many people in the Deptment.

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

Teaching is a great opportunity to continue learning and to share in the learning of others. There are always areas of the discipline that are relatively unfamiliar to me and few better ways to really understand a topic than to teach it. In some ways teaching outside my comfort-zone really helps because it brings out to me what exactly can be difficult to absorb the first time you meet it. Having those light-bulb moments, and seeing others have them, is great.

How have you adapted your teaching during Covid-19? What have you learnt from the experience?

Well the teaching I was scheduled to give was cancelled, so I’ve not had a chance to make big changes yet. I have begun practicing recording video lectures for next term and so far I’ve learnt that this is harder than it looks! And very time-consuming. Now I have to iron my shirts.

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

In the mathematical sciences there is no substitute for seeing someone writing out mathematics; fortunately, the technology needed for this has been around for centuries. Covid-19 has prompted everyone to look at ways of enabling students to learn the subject remotely, and – apologies for the pedestrian answer – at present I am spending a lot of my day on MS Teams, which has a decent whiteboard app to assist with supervision. My tip for using Teams is not to let it take over your life. I seem to be added to a new Team every day.

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

From the perspective of someone with both teaching and research duties, finding the time to fit in both (plus some admin) is always a challenge. There is this constant guilt that one is neglecting the other half of the job. There are many incentives for staff to focus on their reputation in research, so recognition of the teaching side like WATE is important.

What lessons have you learned from your students?

That practicing one’s delivery does pay off. I’m slowly learning how to respond to the mood of the audience. Slow and clear delivery, a well-timed joke, repetition, and movement around the theatre all do seem to help keep everyone engaged and motivated. Subconsciously I think I’m aiming for a kind of academic Stewart Lee, though the students probably don’t see it like that.

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

Good question. There are lots of great qualities but it seems impossible for one person to have them all: youthfully energetic with years of experience, supremely knowledgeable and continually learning, compelling and approachable, creative and analytical, able to support the full diversity of student needs. The teachers are just as diverse as the students and we all have our own strengths, so above all I suppose it would be the ability to learn from others.

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