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WATE PGR 2020 Winner: Lorenzo Serini (Philosophy)

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

In my native country PhD students are usually not allowed to teach; it is commonly believed that, if you do not know it all, you cannot be a teacher. (But who knows it all?!) Initially, I started teaching to prove to myself that I could do it. Then, in the first weeks, I discovered that I love teaching. In particular, I felt that my intellectual work had a direct, concrete impact on students and that in a way I could make a difference. Since, teaching has become an important and fulfilling goal of my academic career. This has motivated me to develop my teaching practice during my doctorate. I was inspired by numerous fantastic teachers and mentors at Warwick; I was – and I am still – keen to learn from various teaching styles, comparing them, selecting those that are more suitable for me, and attempting to combine different methods.

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

Over the years at Warwick, I have encountered several fantastic teachers and mentors, within and without my department, who have helped me to become the teacher I am. I want to thank each and all of them and acknowledge their precious help by sharing three of their pearls of wisdom. First, find a way to make the subject interesting and intriguing to the students in order to motivate them, presenting it in way that is not only relevant to the module (and the assessment) but also to their lives beyond the academic discourse. Second, prepare handouts with spaces for the students to add their notes freely and creatively. Third, make teaching and learning a cheerful experience for yourself and students.

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

One is not born a good teacher; one becomes a good teacher! Teaching is a practice or a craft that can be learned, exercised, and mastered. It is not only about knowing the subject you teach, but also about learning how to teach what you know. This involves theoretical and practical training. At times, it might lead to frustration, but teaching is greatly rewarding and will benefit your learning/research as well as yourself.

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

I would give a first-time teacher exactly the same advice that I wish someone had told me when I started out.

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

I would take the liberty to say two things to more experienced teachers and especially to my future self. I guess it often happens that, with years of experience, one tends to normalise one’s teaching methods and cling to them. I also guess that, increasing the age gap, one tends to distance oneself from the students. My advice, then, would be the following: try to keep your teaching dynamic and even experimental; and try to maintain an enthusiastic attitude towards teaching and the students, creating a good rapport with them.

What does being recognised through WATE PGR mean to you?

I am truly honoured to be recognised through the WATE PGR. I would like to gratefully thank the WATE PGR team and the panel of judges for selecting me. I would also like to sincerely thank my students and the Department of Philosophy for nominating me. The WATE PGR’s recognition means a lot: it enhances my confidence as a teacher and motivates me to develop my teaching practice further. I am more committed than ever to the WATE’s mission to make a difference through teaching and support learning at Warwick.

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

Frankly, teaching has been the best part of my PhD. In particular, I greatly enjoy the human aspects of teaching, such as being with the students. At times, research can be a lonely activity; and teaching is, for me, the opportunity to join study with people. Teaching is a gratifying activity because I can see, more clearly, the impact of my intellectual endeavours on the world. The best part of my job is really working together with the students. Moreover, this is important for my research, too: I feel that I achieve complete clarity about something only if I teach it, subjecting the material to the scrutiny of my students.

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

I have not taught during Covid-19; but, in my view, this situation has shown two things, which are in tension with one another: first, teaching can be done online – at least to an extent; second, online teaching seems to lack the human component of proper, face-to-face teaching which, I think, is conducive to better learning. The tension between the two, I suppose, is a challenge for the university of the future.

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

I use a variety of online technologies to make my teaching more effective and interactive. For instance, I make use of polls (e.g. polleverywhere), game-style activities (e.g. kahoot), and other tools such as Google Ngram Viewer, an online search engine that charts the occurrences of a word in texts published between 1500 and 2008. I am always keen to discover and experiment with other technologies.

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

One of the biggest challenges faced by sessional teachers, like me, is systemic: the casualisation of academic labour. This cannot be overcome by the individual; what is needed, here, is better and more secure work conditions for sessional teachers. Fortunately, the University of Warwick has started to do something to address this problem. Another big challenge beyond the classroom is to find a balance between teaching and research. I have started to find a more harmonious balance between the two only in the third year of my PhD with 2-years of teaching on my back. This, I suppose, is a skill one learns by experience. One thing I have learned to plan my teaching more quickly is to begin by individuating the starting point and the goal of the session. This greatly facilitates how I design the teaching activities. One of the biggest challenges in the classroom, in my view, is to deal with students who appear to be completely uninterested. I try to motivate them by highlighting to them in a light-hearted way the relevance of what is being done in the seminar for the assessment.

What lessons have you learned from your students?

I have learned how to teach not only from more experienced teachers and tutors but from my students, too. Many things I know about teaching come from my direct practice and experience. I have learned to enter the classroom without assumptions about the students. For instance, I have learned that different students learn in different ways and that, sometimes, what I plan might not work for everybody. I now prepare varied materials and present them in different formats in order to address different learning needs and improve access. Moreover, at times, students have taught me something fresh about the material I was teaching, coming up with questions and insights I had not previously taken into consideration. This is certainly one of the senses in which teaching informs my research, too.

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

There is no single recipe for the perfect inspiring teacher. I can say something about the ‘seminar teaching recipe’ I have devised throughout my doctorate to give my best to students. First and foremost, keep in mind that students are at the centre of learning. Carefully prepare the teaching session to facilitate their active contribution to the seminar. In planning think about the teaching session as a journey: keep in sight where you want to go (learning outcomes) and work out the best way to get there, including the best place to start from. Find an adequate starting point to generate students’ interest and motivation. Present the material in a way that is relevant not only to the method of assessment but also to students’ lives. Design teaching activities in which students can engage, individually and collectively, so that they can learn by actively doing rather than passively listening. Keep in mind that different students learn in different ways. Design the best teaching activities to facilitate different students’ learning to make sure all achieve the session’s outcomes. To do so, try to find a balance between what students comfortably know and what they do not (yet) know and might cause frustration. Be and let the students be creative and innovative. Create a positive learning outcome based on honesty, respect, and enthusiasm. Teaching and learning can and should be enjoyable activities for both the teacher and students.

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