For anyone entering the academic profession, teaching plays a significant role. This might come as part of PhD funding, or it might be an additional paid opportunity to deliver small group teaching or demonstrating. There are lots of other pressures on PhD students: there’s the thesis, of course, then there is the need to gain experience of presenting at conferences, organising events and dipping a toe into the murky waters of publications. When I deliver workshops on teaching for PhDs and ECRs, the question that most often arises is generally two-fold: how and why should I fit this into my busy life?
Why fit teaching in?
I’ll start with perhaps the easiest part of the question. For anyone aspiring to gain an academic job, it is quite simply vital to gain teaching experience. There may be some institutions that would not expect a lecturer to actually lecture, but these are, insofar as I can tell from the jobs pages of the jobs.ac.uk website, few and far between. Rather, teaching is part of that trinity of roles that all academics must juggle, with research and administration making up the other two parts. Gaining experience of teaching thus has a very practical purpose.
How can it benefit my work?
There are, however, other great reasons to teach. I find that teaching gives me the best possible feedback on a whole range of things, from whether I am any good at communicating to my research, to whether I can hold the attention of the audience. I have also found out more about my own field of research, the cinema propaganda of the Vichy regime, through teaching than I have through any numbers of academic conferences. Not only that, but I have become a more confident speaker, better-organised and more composed under pressure through my teaching than I would have been had I simply remained in my study all day.
What are the other benefits?
Teaching has always intervened at vital times in my work, often when I most need a break from the travails of research, or indeed when some interaction with enthusiastic students can brighten up an otherwise tough time. Teaching is therefore not only helpful for feedback on research, and indeed on your teaching style, but also for getting out of writing and research mode every once in a while.
How can I fit it in?
This is by far the toughest part of that initial question. Those time pressures on the PhD are very real and impossible to ignore. I am the first to admit that when I began teaching, in the third week of my PhD, I was completely under-prepared for the way in which it sucks up your time, your energy and your thoughts. I have written previously about how difficult it is to not care about your teaching, if you are in any way a conscientious individual. Frankly, for most academics, doing a bad job is just not in our nature. Finding the necessary thinking time to reflect on the big one, the thesis, while teaching for around four hours per week, if not more, is practically impossible unless you are prepared.
Some helpful tips:
- Prepare your commitments in advance: set a deadline for what you want to achieve on the thesis/research project and stick to it. This will force you to spend less time responding to a student’s email about referencing and allow you to weave work on the research around your teaching preparation and administration.
- Don’t allow students to take advantage: I am convinced that students warm most to people who are essentially normal and fundamentally nice. But sometimes there is a temptation to take advantage and abuse the keenness you have demonstrated. This might appear in the form of asking for feedback on an unrelated topic, or even trying you to undertake some unpaid, additional tutoring. These sorts of requests should be met honestly: if there is another quality to which students warm it is honesty, and they will usually respect the fact that you have other commitments and are, normally at least, not paid for such work.
- Think about how this teaching will help you in the future. I like to think that I strive to take on as many opportunities as I can, especially when it comes to potentially expanding my teaching experience. However, taking on commitments which will not help you in the long term carries little of use. Sometimes you might be obliged, because of financial or personal reasons, to take on such opportunities, but it is OK to decline the chance to take on a teaching commitment which does not add anything to your existing CV. This requires the sort of self-focussed thinking which does not come easily to many academics, but it is really important to think strategically about teaching. In so doing, it is much easier to fit your teaching around the ever-present commitment of research.