Highly commended in WATE 2016, Mark has some great advice for first time teachers.
Why did you start teaching? What (or who) inspired you?
I started teaching in 2007 as a PhD student at the University of Nottingham, mainly on American literature survey courses for first-year undergraduates, and then later on intellectual history courses for honours level students. Being a teacher whilst doing a PhD is really important, and a great way to feel that your years of education are starting to feed back into your professional life. I was lucky to have lots of great teachers along the way, but Peter Rawlings stands out.
What pearls of wisdom have you been given over the years that have helped you with your teaching?
I was always told to be yourself rather than some idea of what a ‘university professor’ is supposed to be; the students respond much better to a real person than to an act.
Is there anything you wish someone had told you when you started out?
Be relaxed about preparation. You know your stuff, and it isn’t an exam. Don’t be afraid to admit a student has said something you haven’t heard before or has read something in a way you hadn’t thought of.
If you were mentoring a first-time teacher, what three bits of advice would you give?
- You need to be able to imagine yourself back into a position of not knowing what you know now – how did you get here? What’s the first step?
- Make sure you know the material before you go into the class, but don’t over-prepare. What over-preparing leads to is an anxiety to tell them everything you know about the subject, and seminars can quickly turn into one-way lectures. Don’t feel the need to show off all that knowledge.
- Treat students as adults who you might learn something from, not as children who you need to instruct.
What advice/top tips would you give to more experienced teachers?
We can sometimes project our own student days onto new students; times move on, and they interact with texts, culture, and each other in different ways now. Try to keep up!
What new technologies are you currently using to enhance your teaching? What are your top tips for using them?
Streaming services are essential in the classroom now, but often unreliable/poor quality. Always check a clip all the way through before showing it in class! Increasingly a class can exist outside of the physical room, via online and interactive software, and this often addresses some of the growing anxiety about ‘contact time’. The rise of data visualisation can unlock a lot of contextual understanding for all of us.
What new or future teaching innovations are you looking forward to?
Institutional catch-up with real-world technological change, so that classrooms can be reliably geared up for displaying and using the latest stuff.
What does winning a WATE award mean to you?
It’s very gratifying to receive this kind of ‘official’ recognition for your efforts, and it’s great that the University makes a considerable effort to encourage and reward what is often a hidden part of our jobs. The money will allow me to make contributions to the life of my department that I otherwise wouldn’t have been able to, bringing students into the research culture of my field.
What do you enjoy the most about teaching? What’s the best part of your job?
Keeping in touch with a group of people who are at the most interesting and exciting time of their lives. Working with students teaches me a lot, and reminds me that there is always something new to learn.
What are the biggest challenges faced by teaching staff? How do you overcome these?
Constant marketization, pressures on ‘value for money’, and the introduction of metrics by the government threaten the very thing they claim to be out to improve. Teaching staff need to avoid internalising this language and logic and maintain the classroom as a space where unexpected things can happen.
What lessons have you learned from your students?
Never underestimate them.
If you could write a recipe for the perfect inspiring teacher, what ingredients would you need?
Someone who is a research leader in their field but still able to imagine what it’s like to know nothing about it; someone who feels that they have a lot to contribute but doesn’t think they know it all; someone who believes that their subject is important and is passionate about making other people feel the same.
Know someone like Mark? Nominate them for a WATE award!