'I'm an insect about to be swatted'

Postgraduates can be terrified when they are thrown into teaching. By Sarah Strickland
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The Independent Online
"Are you a real lecturer then, or what?" Dominic Jones was asked by a student at the end of one seminar. The dismaying question got him thinking. "Am I really a proper lecturer? After all, I am here mostly to mop up excess teaching that cannot be handled by existing staff."

With student numbers rising by the year, universities are falling back on postgraduates to tackle teaching duties during their doctoral studies and then go on to short-term lectureship contracts. According to a new book, which has collected the experiences of a dozen university appointees, their role is characterised by a lack of formal training, insecurity of tenure and uncertainly about their status. They are, as the book's title suggests, invariably plunged in at the deep end and left to sink or swim.

As David Allan, the editor, points out, the youthfulness and inexperience of most new tutors is something that concerns not just the students but the tutors themselves. They worry, he says, that they cannot attain the gravitas, the sheer differentiating authority, that many students patently expect.

That was certainly the case for Dominic Jones. As a junior lecturer just under the age of 25, he was the same age as many of his students and "far younger" than most of the mature students in his group. "I keep worrying whether I am carrying the lecturer thing off properly," he writes. "I still have the same clothes, bag, glasses and general paraphernalia of the postgraduate." And a Young Person's Railcard.

With a one-year contract, he felt temporary and expendable. "Fluttering from one group of excess students to another I have a strong feeling of living a sort of academic half-life, of being a stopgap solution, of being like an insect that could at any moment be swatted." While long-term tutors were able to turn their rooms into "bowers of comfort", his students had to sit "grim and silent" in a featureless office. "Only when a permanent job comes along can I bring in the comfortable chairs and enjoy the luxury of being both a resident and an employee."

Such a state of affairs is hardly ideal for tutor or student - and, as one new lecturer points out, undergraduates who are making a financial investment in their studies are likely to feel justifiably aggrieved if they sense they are being short-changed. "A mature student and part-time nurse who has to drive on to campus for a mid-day seminar can be most unforgiving," she writes.

Most new lecturers have to learn on their toes, with only their own experience as students to fall back on. The process can be a painful one. "The weeks before my first seminars saw me in a state of growing terror that I did not possibly have the maturity, knowledge, experience or authority to do this," writes Kate Hill, who began teaching while still studying for her PhD. "I was introduced to the group by a hardened, veteran lecturer, who then watched me stutter, blush and generally 'go to pieces' under his beady eye."

Chris Stokes recalls his introduction to tutoring: "Two pairs of early students are sitting on opposite sides. Acres seem to separate them. I wasn't expecting them to be this early. Should I ask them to help me rearrange the furniture? I deliberate. I decide not to bother them, then regret it ... I have some papers with me ... I shuffle the pages and bore into them with my eyes- - it's safer than looking around. I'm a bag of nerves. Ten minutes to go before I can start. What do I do now?"

How to deal with recalcitrant students, how to stimulate a lively discussion, how to deliver an interesting and informative lecture and how to be approachable but not over-friendly are all learnt painstakingly by trial and error. While most of the book's contributors came to enjoy their teaching and feel they were actually doing well at it, the plea for some form of preparation runs throughout. "Surely properly managed teaching experience at graduate level would provide better training for the future academic," argues one new lecturer. First-day nerves may still be inevitable, and real learning will always begin on the job. But students deserve lecturers and tutors who have some idea of what to expect and how to cope on the other side of the fence.

'In at the deep end: first experiences of university teaching' is available, price pounds 7.95, from the Unit for Innovation in Higher Education, Lonsdale College, Lancaster University LA1 4YN.