5 Things They Don’t Tell You About Teaching in Higher Education…

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Have you ever considered a career in teaching? Does it sound totally great but the concept of a PGCE and a month’s mandated nose-wiping in a Primary School turn you off? Would you rather teach people you can be cynical and sarcastic to? Then try HE!

(note that this is primarily cathartic cynicism, it’s still a good job, and where I’ve highlighted problems below I do have solutions – at least for the things in my control – but maybe for another time)


It’s long been thought that the difference between teaching at school and at university is that the former were forced to be there – as subjects become more optional, attitudes improve. I do think that’s true, and is part about what makes teaching in further and higher ed. much more attractive. When students want to learn because they intrinsically value it, they’re great to teach, and this is backed up by (decent) research in education and psychology.

Except…

1. The students don’t want to be there

Once, long ago, students came to university because they had a passion for the subject – although this tended to correlate strongly with being wealthy and white for various reasons, that’s beside the point for now. People would happily come to university for the privilege and sheer honour of sitting in a stuffy room and listen to an academic talk endlessly about their area of expertise (a minor exaggeration, I’m sure). After all, it didn’t matter if you didn’t understand it, you just went to the library to learn it again properly before hitting the subsidised alcohol.

But that’s very much changed now.

We can blame the new fees regime, sure, but there’s been a broader cultural shift in what university is actually for – or, at least, seen to be for. It’s now a continuation of school, it’s just “what you do”, and if you don’t go to university you’re seen as a failure. Whether this comes from employers demanding “any degree” for jobs that don’t warrant it, wider society now valuing education for its own sake, or even direct bullshit-expectations from parents, students have to go to university. Students now scramble onto difficult STEM courses because they’re offered through clearing, but do so with a lack of maths qualifications and an interest in the subject that comes exclusively from being told “don’t do Art History or English, it’s a waste of time”. The expectation is “university”, as opposed to “physics” or “biochemistry”.

The end result is that students don’t really want to be taught by you. They see university as a 3-4 year prison sentence they must serve before they can graduate and a get a decent job with more money – a fallacy given that graduate wages are rapidly collapsing. Students increasingly see only the extrinsic value in the subject – the degree, the stepping stone to the next thing. You’re there to tell them how to pass the exam so that they can be graded and graduate with a 2:1 and put off deciding what they want to do with their lives for a bit longer. The effect this has on their motivation is just as bad as school pupils who are “forced” to stay in school way past the point where they care about it.

It’s not a universal, but it’s a large enough quantity to make the job much harder than it needs to be. In fact, the job is already hard enough given that…

2. There is no training (that’s of any use)

Surely, the person standing up to lecture you has been taught how to do it effectively, right? And when someone is organising a tutorial, they’ve been told how to structure the session, respond to queries, and their notes on the questions contain an extensive troubleshooter and FAQ?

Nah.

You’re pretty much thrown into it with nothing if you decide to go on a teaching route. You’ll go into the lab for the first time to supervise 100 or so 18-21 year-olds and know nothing of the practicals. You’ll have a group of 6 in a tutorial and you won’t have had the chance to practice what you’re going to do with them. You’ll turn up to a lecture and this is the first time you’ll have given a presentation where the audience’s comprehension of what you’re about to say actually matters.

Now, this isn’t to say you’re ultimately terrible at it. Junior academics usually have to present to a lecture theatre (their research and proposals) before they’re employed. The ones that don’t get the job are the ones that fail to realise this isn’t a presentation, it’s an audition. As a result, anyone employed in that position can at least speak clearly and won’t fidget and mumble their way through a lecture series. But that’s it, that’s the main bit of quality control that weeds out the physically incapable. Barring a yearly peer review (usually precipitated when the one person who cares decides to organising), which focuses mainly on ticking a few boxes along the lines of “were you any good? Yeah, whatever”, there’s little to no culture of review or quality control on HE teaching. Responses from student feedback are, generally speaking, either useless (“they were fine” ranging to needlessly personal insults) or unrepresentative (a response-rate of 5% is good) so can’t be used to improve teaching and direct your own development as a teacher.

Well, there is some training. But it doesn’t involve how to deliver or develop a curriculum, or make sure that your ideas are understood by people. Instead, you’ll get taught “learning styles” (largely debunked as hokum) or you’ll be taught Kolb’s learning cycle (I’ve yet to find a use for it) and countless over-complicated words that really do nothing but state the obvious. You’ll hear about “travelling theory” where you treat your “subject as a terrain to be explored with hills to be climbed for better viewpoints with the teacher as the travelling companion or expert guide”. This all sounds lovely and poetic and makes some abstract high-level sense, but doesn’t really help you help you teach someone how to normalise a wavefunction or integrate a rate equation. And the diagrams – be sure to always call them “models” – the bloody diagrams that mean nothing but will make your eyeballs bleed. Bloom’s taxonomy (or at least the cognitive domain of it) might be useful for you writing exam questions, but that’s it. Make sure you use “conceptions” and “discourse” a lot when it comes to writing your essay to prove you’ve learned this stuff.

The only useful thing I got out of a year’s worth of workshops and coursework was a half-hour session on vocal health – because talking your bollocks off to 200 people for 45 minutes is harder physical work than it seems. That was great; and something I appreciated more than most, thanks to being married to a pro vocalist who has schooled me in the theory of that for over a decade.

Anyway, why the “training” sucks segues nicely to the next bit. You’re not really being trained to teach, exactly…

3. If you want recognition, be prepared to do something useless

Teaching is a largely thankless task in higher education. This sounds a bit weird if you think of university primarily as an educational institution, yet, it makes perfect sense if you think of them as academic institutions designed to generate research. Teaching doesn’t generate headlines, it doesn’t bring in millions in grant money, and it will get you a new building only once in a blue moon when the university finally listens to the 800th email saying “the teaching labs are about to fall down and kill people!” (because “they’re too small to fit the students you demand we should take” doesn’t get the job done).

This is slowly changing, though. We can blame the fee regime for this. Students now make up the majority of funding for universities, and with the Teaching Excellence Framework around the corner, the higher-ups are taking it seriously.

Except…

The training and recognition don’t reward good teaching, they reward talking about good teaching. Hopefully, I shouldn’t need to hammer home that these aren’t the same thing.

Consider what you need to do for an HEA fellowship, for example. You need to write essays and take part in continuous personal development (CPD), but few of those are ever based around your actual teaching (you have to write a case-study of your own teaching, but the actual aim is to analyse it using the bullshit you learned in your ‘training’ workshops). As a result, the people who get published in the educational literature, and so make a name for themselves as ‘good’ teachers, are the ones who write things like “Conceptions of Student Learning: A New Model Paradigm For Higher Education” and then proceed to yank four student types out of their arse and call them “Square Thinkers” and “Circle Thinkers” and “Triangle Thinkers” and “Squiggle Thinkers”, each described with Barnum statements and no real evidence, and then try to say something profound like “you should make your tutorial group of Squares, Circles, Triangles and Squiggles”. I’m not naming names, but this actually happened once.

So if you can guff around and talk crap about teaching and learning, and make it sound complicated and theoretical and academic, you could very easily find yourself on route to a very cushy academic job in an education department.

Alternatively, you can innovate. Innovation is something I won’t bash outright, but innovation for the sake of innovation is the enemy. Want a teaching award? Start a Twitter account! Send out homework assignments via Snapchat! Get into a packed lecture theatre and do explosions with your students – don’t bother telling them why they explode and how to stop it, that might be useful to them, and that’s boring. Experiment with keeping your office door open! Do EBL and PBL and use the word “constructivism” a lot! Add your students on Facebook! Tear up the rule book because you’re cool and wait for lavish praise to fall upon you!

If you’re a softly-spoken lecturer who stands at the front to just talk – calmly, rationally, and with a clear message – the students will go away knowing a lot about a subject. But that sort of crap doesn’t get you an award or promotion. (before you think this just sounds like bitterness on my behalf, you need to know I’m not actually this kind of person)

Anyway, you can avoid most ‘training’ sessions, except the most important one, which they probably won’t tell you about…

4. You need to learn mental health first-aid

So, cynicism aside for a moment, if you want to work with students, seriously, learn mental health first-aid. Believe me, there’s a lot that “common sense” won’t get you through here so you need to know it and get taught by someone who knows what they’re doing. It’s difficult to deal with, but it’s something you will inevitably deal with and may even take up a measurable chunk of your time (which can’t be directly assigned to the Work Allocation Model, of course).

Why is this important and potentially time-consuming?

Look above at all the crap students have to deal with. Under pressure to perform from their parents, locked into a course they hate by the expense and the fears that they’ll never pay back these objectively ridiculous fees, surrounded by staff who would rather be writing their next Science paper than answer questions on thermodynamics, faced with lab work that’s almost designed to overload their working memory… and then panicked that they haven’t learned anything from the young, hip and trendy ones that are telling them to check their twitter feed for tutorial announcements.

All that on top of being young, a bit dim, unsure… by the gods, the list goes on. It is a perfect recipe for a mental breakdown. And this is strikingly common, and not just restricted to the stereotype of the emo goth girl who broke up with her boyfriend. Anyone who comes into your office could break down in tears at a moments notice.

I really don’t talk about this often, so I’ll get it over with in a single quick-fire list: in a few short years I’ve had students on anti-depressants, undergoing  CBT, having panic attacks in labs, admitting to being sexually assaulted, having been mugged, saying that their family has just imploded, discovered they’re dyslexic, passed out in an exam and woke up in hospital, passed out in a laboratory, passed out in my office…

This is serious fucking business. We’re not there to be therapists – we shouldn’t take on that role – but university counselling services are stretched thin, underfunded (by comparison to their need), and are only really available as palliative care rather than preventative. As a result, we often have no choice. If you want to take a teaching-track route into HE, you’re likely to be in close contact with students far more often than research-focused counterparts, you’re going to be seen as more approachable because of it, you’re going to deal with this whether you like it or not.

Maybe you want to stay in research over teaching, because…

5. We don’t know if it’s going to become a dead-end or not

As recently as 5-6 years ago, a teaching-track in a university was a dead-end. Teaching staff were recruited as a cheap and easy plugs to do jobs that senior academics didn’t want to do. They don’t want to spent 6 hours on their feet in teaching labs. They don’t want to blow 4 hours a week on tutorials. They’ll put up with a lecture course if it’s the only one they have to teach that term and they don’t have to do anything but stand and talk. And so, teaching-focused staff were born – costing only as much as a postdoc to employ, capable of absorbing much of the abuse students generate, and having copious free time to load up with that “any other duties” bit of the job description.

But there was no promotion track. There’s no way, as a teaching-focused academic, you can write and bring in a 6-7 figure grant. There’s no way, as someone who doesn’t run a research group, you can really publish a high-impact paper. And so there was no way that a university or department could reward you for it.

This has, however, mildly improved. There are now promotion criteria, there are pathways to get to senior positions, and – even if it is rare as astatine – you can get a tenured professorship purely on teaching. Some places are even slowly unpicking the distinction between teaching and research focused staff, allowing you to hold the title of “lecturer” officially – ironically, “lecturer” usually means you do less lecturing than the people without it. This is all fabulous, of course. Finally, universities are recognising that students bring in a load of cash, and so the staff to teach them stuff might be worth investing in.

But.

There’s always a ‘but’.

The UK is slowly moving over to the United States’ model in, well, every area, really – and this includes HE. We’re going to privatise our healthcare, prisons and welfare, and we’re going to hike higher education fees to make them inaccessible to all but the most advantaged people. We also run the risk of paying staff less, exploiting the eagerness of younger researchers and teaching staff to take poorly-paid positions for a 1-2% shot at the big time. The US runs on a frankly appalling system of “adjunct” professors, who are usually newly-minted PhDs who are typically paid per class they teach. The end result is that many of them teach classes at multiple institutions, often with long commutes between, and are paid only for the hours teaching. Once you factor in the travel times between jobs, the marking, grading, course development and other sundry overtime, the wages work out as just below minimum wage. Yet the system works because people feel they have no other choice – and they’d be right, that’s their only choice.

Is the UK heading that way, too? Maybe, maybe not. I don’t know. On the one hand, we’ve seen staggering improvements in the respect you get for teaching in HE, on the other hand we could revert to the US model at a moments notice if the suits in charge see that it’s cheaper to pay some young pup £3,000 to teach a class than it is to pay them £30,000 to be full-time and only teach 4-5.

I’ve seen an increase in teaching positions advertised as “term-time only”, which pro-rata down to quite a low salary for a year of work, meaning you’ll need a temp or part-time job to keep you busy in the long summer. But, more importantly, term-time-only contracts and per-class contracts robs universities of the chance to do any development work. Most teaching labs experiments were cutting edge back in the 60s, some lecture courses haven’t been updated since the 90s, intro courses given to first years are still the same tired old things despite evidence that flipped delivery would improve them. No one can do that unless teaching-focused staff are given the time, respect, and clout to develop – and that means employing them full time, even over the Christmas, Easter, and summer breaks. If the worrying trend to employ them for their hours only continues, we’ll lose any chance of curriculum development or review by people who actually care about effective teaching.

So there’s a lot of work being put in to make the position respectable. But it’s likely that the walking suits earning 10x what I’ll ever be able to won’t like that, and reverse the entire thing into a ditch.

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3 thoughts on “5 Things They Don’t Tell You About Teaching in Higher Education…

  1. in my opinion ,to become a successful lecturer ,you should know the mental health of your students first,in my career i came across many such students who were mentally ill but i spend alot of my time with them in discussing there problems.And i felt good change in them with time.teaching is such a nice profession among all ,where you actually build the nation

    Reply
  2. “The UK is slowly moving over to the United States’ model in, well, every area, really – and this includes HE.”

    Fight this. Fight it with all of your tea loving heart, in every avenue and cranny it rears its ugly head. For the love of everything, don’t be more like us. There are some things we do well, but I don’t think those things are worth trading for the things you already do well.

    Reply
    • Unfortunately, I’m a sort-of-Trotskyist in a sense that I think that change comes from installing the right people in the right places and positions of power – and so that’s my plan; crawl up to a pay grade where I can actually do something positive. Trouble is, a lot of the problems are going to be continually above me. We’re in a situation where a Vice Chancellor of a university (again, not naming names) can sit on his blackberry and check emails for a full half-hour presentation on teaching innovations in a department, and then immediately at the end turn to one of the others in professional services (as opposed to the TFs giving the presentation) and ask “Is there any actual value in Teaching Fellows?” Well, yes there is if you paid attention, but clearly there’s a move to screw those staff over so that you can grant the higher-ups a pay rise. Faced with that sort of thing from above, the fight is going to be very difficult and very long-term.

      Reply

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