I have a confession: as an undergraduate, I assumed that lecturers spent their entire lives poised at their desks, module descriptions in hand, waiting for us students to traipse into their book-lined offices so they could whir into action. I was completely oblivious to the faculty’s research lives, much less their social or emotional ones.
Now I’m a doctoral student, and I sit on the other side of the classroom door. Except it’s not just the module description I’m clutching, but a forest’s worth of archival research notes, a CV that needs to be populated with conference papers, publications and extra-curricular activities, and a diary mapping the next few months of my life in intricately scribbled detail.
Teaching as a PhD student clearly has the potential to be a stressful endeavour. For many it’s a new undertaking, demanding much planning and self-evaluation. If we’re precious about time – of which there’s inevitably never enough – answering the proliferation of emails from nervous first-years or endlessly photocopying resources can seem a real infringement on our primary task: research. But what if we can think about teaching and research as integrated elements of the PhD student’s role, rather than creating friction against each other? I offer here just a few reflections on my own experience of the great privilege of having a teaching role over the last academic year.
‘L’ plates all round
I wonder how I might have approached my undergraduate essays if I’d known that my lecturers were also labouring over their own critical projects — that we shared the perennial struggle to pluck the right word from a mass of jargon, the battle to shepherd our thoughts into a straight line, and the scramble to meet a looming deadline. It works both ways: if we really believe, as Ben Knights has suggested, that literature is a subject where students are ‘as capable of startling new insight as an experienced scholar’, why don’t we treat our students as peers? Exposing our work to a group of fresh-faced undergraduates might just jolt us into understanding or articulating things differently.
When teaching is research
After a few months of guiding seminar discussions, the stage persona of one of the performers I’m researching began to feel warmly familiar. Watching a recording of her show, I recognised her strategies of audience engagement as the same pedagogic techniques I employed each week in the classroom, techniques designed to promote emotional interaction and knowledge retention. Might thinking deeply about how students relate to one other and to the world somehow bring new insights to your own research?
Heart beating faster, brain whirring, dry mouth… who is it? An academic about to give a controversial conference paper? Or could it be a student hovering on the edge of contributing to a lively discussion? There are certain academic conventions that we ask students to replicate, though we rarely enunciate the connections. The classroom can be a scary place; just like the conference panel, it’s a moment of vulnerability before peers. In my discipline, where practice can be individualistic and isolating, we need students to see each other as peer support and co-educators, not competition. If we teach ambitiously, taking risks by offering our own critical positions, and so sometimes publicly get things wrong, we give our students permission to do the same.
Having wondered how I’d juggle everything when I started teaching last autumn, I’m surprised and pleased to be missing the rewarding weekly encounters now it’s the summer season. What’s your experience? How have you dealt with balancing your teaching and research? Or, if you’re yet to start, what questions do you have?