On the front lines: teaching as a research student

Teach a man to fish, and he will probably break your rod before catching anything.

as analogies go, I’m pretty underwhelmed

At least that is what used to be my feelings about teaching. Not being blessed with a great deal of natural patience, I always felt teaching was, while highly valuable, simply not for me. This was coloured by my experience at primary and secondary school, being one of the pupils who really wanted to learn having to put up with those that were much more interested in mucking about and causing trouble. If they couldn’t be bothered to learn, then they can sod off and leave the rest of us to it was my opinion.  I never looked at the position of a teacher, having to coral students of all interests and abilities and direct them towards a common goal, with much envy at all.

However, more recently my attitude has begun to soften. This might be simple mellowing with age, but I’d like to think it’s more profound than that. Unless you pump out 4 star research papers, the modern academic has to teach to help pay for their keep at modern universities. We, the post-grads, get introduced to this in a fairly relaxed way, by being employed as student demonstrators. In this role we assist with teaching in practical sessions, by trouble shooting, dealing with questions, checking no one is silently struggling and of course being fancied by all the undergrads (ed: no need to check the date to see if this is a joke ). This is great experience, and a very handy source of a little additional income. Some like it more than others, but in general everyone mucks in, does their fair share of the crappy jobs like marking to go with the odd fun thing like trips to the zoo, and the system gets by. (Actually recently we had a little bit worker unrest over the payment system, but I won’t bore you with the details, although you’ll be pleased to know we managed to make our voices heard and change enacted.)

I surprised myself by quite enjoying this. Whether it’s the feeling of pseudo-power I got from waltzing round dispensing knowledge to confused undergrads, or a genuine enjoyment from helping out the next generation of young scientists, I found myself taking it quite seriously, working out ways to question the students most effectively to help them realise the answers, and giving the best feedback I could when marking assessments. If I had paid £9,000 for tuition I would expect nothing less, so I would be a hypocrite if when in the position of power I did not do what I could to help out.

Because of this change of heart, and also influenced by a need to make myself as employable as possible (plan B is not just a pop singer with disturbingly grimy early material), I signed up to do the non-compulsory level 2 teaching course, and have recently been tackling the reflective essay we need to complete to gain official accreditation with the HEA. Again I surprised myself, becoming quite passionate about how to teach, what to teach and how to assess learning.

Perhaps this stems from my view on science in general. It’s a process, a collective effort by all of mankind to work out why the world around us is like it is. Science is a big old machine though, and always needs more people to turn its cogs and oil its gears. This means we’ve got to inspire the next generation, enthuse them with a love of discovery and a desire to explore the natural world. There are many ways of doing this, from latching onto popular trends to making science sexy . 

Ultimately though, we’ve got to teach, and got to teach well. Otherwise we’ll lose scores of sharp minds to the city or to the bright lights of marketing or media, and our understanding of the world will suffer as a result. As an active researcher fresh out of my own undergraduate degree my role has an additional angle, as we provide a tangible link between the supposedly mighty professor and the allegedly lowly 1st year student. Being taught by someone at the forefront of the field (a massive plus of researchers doing teaching) is a little intimidating for your average 18/19 year old, the chances of them ever being like that appear remote. But they see us and can more easily imagine themselves where we are now, which make us much more approachable for those questions which they might be embarrassed taking to Professor McGenius of Evolution. If they won’t question they won’t learn, so anything I can do to encourage them to raise a hand is vital.

Also something one of the first years I am a tutor for said inspired the next paper we will discuss, so I had to give her some credit somewhere. Every day’s a school day, and everyone’s a teacher.

Now, even me.


One thought on “On the front lines: teaching as a research student

  1. Pingback: Hemingway and the essence of science | DFofFreedom

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