360° Analysis

University Teaching for Beginners


September 10, 2012 20:37 EDT

Starting out as a university lecturer may be different to how you imagine, but your students will be sure to keep you on your toes.

When starting to teach at university, young teachers – just having accomplished their final exams and their M.A. degrees – have to face problems they would not have expected. Who would have guessed that teaching in a university system you have known for years could be so different to being a student in it? With a lot of preconceptions about how teaching works, you soon hit some speed bumps when being confronted with the actual reality of it.

The first area you might underestimate is the intricate and time-consuming labyrinth of official regulations. Dealing with all the different types of subject combinations and study careers might make you feel like a pedantic bureaucrat: you have to consider who is allowed to take part in the course, what kind of test you are allowed to set (final exam, take-home exercises, oral presentation, portfolio or term paper?), how the test is to be graded (fail or pass, rounded or unrounded school grades, credit points), and whether you are allowed to give oral grades or if you need a co-examiner observing the examination. Sometimes you wish for the former university system where you had only one basic rule to observe: you as a teacher have the right to decide who attends your course and what your students are supposed to do. Now you have to stick to all these rules or the experts of the study regulations, the students themselves, might point out to you that you are not allowed to demand an additional oral test because it does not say so in the exam regulations. If this happens in front of the whole course, well…who looks stupid now?

Here we touch upon another area that has a certain impact on one’s previously formed ideas of what ideal teaching means: the students are not always what you expect them to be. Being fair, friendly and funny is not enough to create an agreeable and supportive working environment. Students are not a homogeneous group: neither attentive teacher’s pets who absorb everything you say without criticism, nor revolutionary free-thinkers who are willing to discuss the problems of the world. As everybody working with groups of people probably knows, you rather meet certain stock characters who require different methods in order to deal with them.

One type every teacher should be happy to have in their course is the one who has a say in everything. It is good to have at least one of those, because you do not need to be afraid of asking a question nobody will care about answering. The hard part is, though, that they tend to intimidate their fellow students and a lesson can get extremely dreary in a duologue between the teacher and the course’s eager beaver. Sometimes it helps to pretend not to see their raised hand and invite others to answer instead. The other type of student who speaks up occasionally is the one who wants to call you to order and point out that you, in their eyes, demand things that are not reasonable, too hard to understand, superfluous or – remember – not covered by the university regulations. Here you know that the ideal of learning for learning’s sake will not be applicable as those people pursue a form of energy conservation studies. Reasoning with them and telling them that they are learning for life and not just for university rarely works. You get better results informing them that everything will potentially be on the final test! A third actively participating student type, able to give you a headache, are those (often male) students who are not buying that you are an authority in your field of study and thus try to challenge you and your knowledge now and then – sometimes to show what they already know. When you are not able to share their enthusiasm for their opinion, it sometimes helps to give them a hard nut to crack so they are occupied for a while. One last important character type is – to put it politically incorrectly – the politically over-sensitive, multi-tolerant cultural diversity agents who take a stand for gender equality, ethnic or religious minorities, animal and plant rights, environmental protection and anti-capitalist, democratic thinking. You may prevent disagreeable discussions by avoiding male personal pronouns or (in German) expressions like AutobahnReiseführer or dumme Gans.

Besides these protagonists that take part in discussions, a large number of students raise their hands rarely or never. Here you have to differentiate between those who are not willing to participate and those who are not capable of doing so. Those who are not willing are either too smart to bother with the elementary matter you would like to discuss or seem like silent waters who are not willing to talk, but then hand in essays you would award them the Pulitzer Prize for. Those who are not capable on the other hand are either overwhelmed by the complexity of the discussion or too tired from yesterday’s night out to concentrate (the last group often correlates with those who are a little too chaotic to hand in papers in time, come to class punctually or register correctly for their exams). The quieter students are easier to handle during discussion time, but of course need more motivation to actively participate. Don’t be afraid of calling on them unbidden; maybe they will grumble, but mostly you will get formidable results after all.

Although you have to learn to deal with all these different kinds of reactions to your lessons, you can be happy to have this diverse range of characters. Only with different opinions and attitudes can a creative discussion with new opinions and ideas ensue. And a final win-win situation would be that at the end of the course you get this one email that says, “I really enjoyed your class and learned a lot!”, and you can answer back, “Thank you, me too!”.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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