Why did you start teaching? What (or who) inspired you?
My parents were both teachers in Ireland. My father is also a novelist and my mother began to research at the end of her teaching career, so I grew up in an atmosphere of learning, reading and discussion. They both used to coach debating at the school they taught at, and I have really clear memories of them helping students to prepare. They would listen carefully to a student’s argument, and then pick it apart. It was always a constructive effort, helping them to see that how it might go together in better ways. It’s that sort of pedagogic encounter that I try to re-create.
What pearls of wisdom have you been given over the years that have helped you with your teaching?
Powerpoint is not evil, it’s just really dangerous. The tendency is to always to overload slides. When that happens students just read, and a significant proportion of them will never hear anything you have to say. At that point, they may be as well off at home reading the slides in their own time. In a number of different talks, a friend demonstrated how to minimally structure a lecture (images, themes, and maybe case names and key points) using a small number of slides.
My students have (helpfully) suggested that I speak more slowly.
Is there anything you wish someone had told you when you started out?
Always rewrite your lectures, even if none of the material has changed. And don’t be afraid to experiment.
If you were mentoring a first-time teacher, what advice would you give?
Module preparation is incredibly important, but it is the work you do in the hours immediately before you teach that will make or break a teaching session.
It takes a while to understand your own style of teaching. Trying to be self-critical and reflexive will speed up that journey.
Always keep notes on what worked and what didn’t in seminars, lectures and a whole module. Try to be analytical about why seemed to go well or badly. Talk to students informally after class or in office hours and try to get a sense of their experience.
What advice/top tips would you give to more experienced teachers?
Honestly, I don’t think I have anything to suggest to experienced teachers, except perhaps to remember that our university system encourages impersonal relations with large numbers of students, and to remember that a personal connection with students is really important.
What does being recognised through WATE mean to you?
Being nominated by my wonderful colleague Dallal Stevens was a huge honour. I was thrilled to be shortlisted amongst such brilliant teachers.
What do you enjoy the most about teaching? What’s the best part of your job?
I love watching the student podcast projects develop. The students start out with a broad context that they want to work on, and as they progress I get to see them hone in on exciting stories that might interest a broader audience. There is always a shock at the end, when I hear their finished podcasts and they have turned these stories into something beautiful and compelling, that might grace the airwaves of a national radio station.
How have you adapted your teaching during Covid-19? What have you learnt from the experience?
I have begun preparing materials for next year, and I have realised once more how much more work goes in to producing good online materials. I have learned how to use some editing software, about chunking, and various other techniques.
What new technologies are you currently using to enhance your teaching? What are your top tips for using them?
I bought a really good podcasting microphone a few years ago and I have been playing with the tone of my recordings. I have been thinking about what happens to the ideas that I’m teaching when I’m not projecting myself to a class of 30 or 40. Should I speak differently to students when my voice is being beamed into their ears, in their own private spaces? What sort of atmosphere is conducive to learning in that environment? How do I create these atmospheres aurally?
What are the biggest challenges faced by teaching staff? How do you overcome these?
I think the increasing precarity of large groups of our teachers is extraordinarily damaging for everyone involved. I fear that with covid-19 this is only going to get worse, with a whole generation of graduate students lost to the university system. We owe it to our students and to our precarious colleagues, to move to a more secure system.
What lessons have you learned from your students?
Above all else, slow down!
If you could write a recipe for the perfect inspiring teacher, what ingredients would you need?
Enthusiasm, creativity, preparation, organisation, listening and empathy.
Enjoyed hearing from Illan? See the full list of 2020 winners and commendees and read other interviews.