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WATE 2018 commendee: Jennie Mills (LDC)

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

I started teaching when I was offered the first year undergraduate critical theory seminar. I always saw teaching as an integral aspect of an academic career, and so with a freshly minted D.Phil. I was keen to get going. My desire to become an academic was sharpened by two of my undergraduate lecturers - radically different but who both flattened the student-lecturer hierarchies in their own way. One was an early career lecturer in her first academic post, she was supportive, encouraged me to produce the best work I could, and seemed to respect my academic work and value me as an individual and as a potential future colleague. The other was a highly acclaimed poet, critic and author, who gave impenetrable lectures, full of references to German philosophy, economic theory and classical allusions which were beyond my cultural capital. His originality inspired me to take risks in my own work, to push boundaries, and he expected all his students to create knowledge not regurgitate it.

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

The two most helpful ideas that I encountered (and which echoed across communities of new teachers and academics) are related. One, don’t be hamstrung by your awareness of what you don’t know, and two, teaching isn’t really about what you know it’s about how students come to know – i.e. it’s not about knowing, it’s about learning.

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

It will always be a bit scary – and it should be.

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

  1. Make sure at the outset that you know what you want your students to achieve, make sure that your teaching enables them to achieve it, and make sure that your assessment enables them to show that they have achieved it. (This might be three things!)
  2. Really understand why you are doing what you are doing – don’t take your methods for granted.
  3. When you are preparing to teach a session, spend more time thinking about what the students will be doing to learn than learning about the stuff you are going to be teaching.

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

As above.

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

I use Moodle in my teaching, but that’s been around the block a few times so I suppose that I’m still waiting for the next big thing. But then again, we’ve been talking about the potential of learning technologies for about 50 years, so maybe that will be a long wait. The ‘top tip’ would be, ask yourself, is this technology the best tool for students to achieve the intended learning outcomes, does it enable me to do something I couldn’t do via any other means. If the answer is no, don’t bother.

What new or future teaching innovations are you looking forward to?

I’m quite interested in the potential for immersive learning opened up by developments in virtual reality, particularly when combined with simulations and serious games. I think learning analytics might also lead to some exciting places, especially if they become used in formative ways (analytics for learning), in collaboration with students (student-led analytics). On the same theme the work being done by the Open University with AI to detect emotional responses to elearning might also lead to some interesting thinking on student engagement in online environments.

What does winning a WATE award mean to you?

Fame, riches, international travel!

I actually find it quite embarrassing to be celebrated when I know that there are many many academics at Warwick working in thoughtful, creative and engaging ways to promote student learning.

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

‘Enjoy’ may not quite be the right word (see previous answer re-scariness). The best part of the job is definitely feedback which goes along the lines "this was better than I thought it would be, and it made me think differently".

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

I don’t think that this can be answered. Each educator will face distinct and mutable challenges. Not all of these can be overcome. The best we can do is to maintain a frisson of dissatisfaction with the status quo, a resilience and a curiosity which inspires us to try to meet them.

What lessons have you learned from your students?

I’ve learned everything from my students.

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

There is no such thing as a perfect teacher, who said that the perfect teacher is always inspiring, and you don’t need a recipe.

Great teaching is a process of discovery, experiment, take some risks, and you’ll work it out.


Enjoyed hearing from Jennie? See the full list of 2018 winners and commendees and read other interviews.