Reflections on Teaching in UK Academia

The UACES Network |

UACES Doctoral training academy 22/11/19, University of Kent in Brussels

By Professor Helen Drake, Director of the Institute for Diplomacy and International Governance, Loughborough University London, UK.


My academic career may have been entirely based in UK higher education institutions but I have had many different teaching jobs. Once in France in a class of sixty students, eighty percent of whom had no intention of learning the English I was teaching, a student set fire to her hat. Later, back in the UK and having moved from teaching French language in small groups to lecturing on politics to very large classes, I discovered, thankfully, that language teachers were brave pioneers of active learning: I had tricks up my sleeve.  A more recent shift to teaching international postgraduates has shown me how much work is still to be done to truly diversify the students’ learning experience. It is hard and it is humbling. I also now manage academics who teach. Together we are discovering what is lost when we are not sharing the same physical space as our students (or each other), and we are learning more about our students (and each other) as we face the uncertainties of Covid-19.

My Experience as a Teacher in UK Academia or What I Wish Someone had Told Me

Teaching even after all these years is still a haven for me – a sort of personal safe space.  No matter what has just happened outside the classroom, when I step inside, I feel right.  Believe me, this fact of my life has been tested under fairly extreme conditions. This tells me that teaching is about skills, yes, but it’s also about vocation and aptitude, and meaning. Trust that you are in the profession because you are dedicated to conveying your knowledge and passion.  Those are aspects of your professional persona to develop and to convey to others, and to refer to when the going gets tough. Because preparing teaching, being in the classroom, marking – the marking! –can be demanding and stressful.  The workload can be crushing.  The lecture hall can be challenging. In my last year of undergraduate teaching, my class on the EU got a bit rowdy. I encountered discipline problems for the first time in 20 years (big lads with attitude on their phones).

Having reflected on all of this, here’s what I have to offer from my experience to date.  

First, it’s not usually you, but ‘them’.  By them, I don’t mean the students themselves as individual learners (other than the hat-arsonist), but the students as they have by and large been constructed – in the UK at least – as entitled fee-paying consumers of higher education. And what that means is to always think about what support and assistance you need, and expect your ‘managers’ to manage. That is what they are there for, in those roles. Don’t hide or let yourself get isolated in any problematic situations that arise. Do what you can to make the system work as it’s supposed to. Expect people in positions of responsibility to take responsibility. Find a mentor who you trust. Do not take it all on your own shoulders but find other, broader backs whose job it is to take some of the strain. If you think that students on a programme are being over-assessed, then they probably are. Think constructively about the processes, structures and so on through which you can bring this up and start a process of change. You have agency and your view counts. Make your voice heard, learn tactics, get cover, above all, be professional. Sometimes be prepared to say no.

Second, and in my experience, 18 (or so)-year old undergraduate students in 2020 are pretty much the same as the 18-year old students I ‘experimented’ on when I began academic teaching in 1990. They may since have been reframed as fee payers (more accurately, as fee debtors) but that has been done to them; they have been told that they need feedback and can expect it. But no matter how far they are coopted into the dynamics of student-as-consumer, student-as-future employee, student-as-student rep etc, it is my experience that they are still at the same life stage. Young.  Distracted. You name it.  Let’s assume, too, that they are as or eager or disinclined to learn as previous generations.  We should not be surprised when they don’t read all the guidance, policy, advice and other information that we now expect them to absorb (“read the guide”, we tell them); when they don’t even read the feedback; when they ask me to just call them with the grade (my line: no grade without feedback); when, even, they think that I and a colleague – she was French, significantly older than me and physically different, or so I thought  – were one and the same person: an older white woman comes and teaches us French, end of. That’s how little they were interested in us as individuals and – not ignoring the probable gender and ageism issues there – I’m pretty fine with their supreme lack of interest in me beyond my teaching persona  – what I want from them is to show up and pay attention, learn, and enjoy it.

There are things we can’t excuse – a student who arrived one hour late for my class in November 2019 and when asked, explained that she had taken two and a half hours for lunch.  Obviously. I would if I could. I followed that up wearing my Institute Director’s hat. Other students, by the way, want to see us tackling such poor conduct. But the vast amount of the time I want to enjoy being with young people, I want to minimise the information that is superfluous to their studies, and make it manageable for them. Often face to face helps – show them the intranet, the lecture recordings, show them photos of my colleagues, tell them who I am: all things that are made much harder by our current Covid-19 situation. Let’s take away from students quite so many of the distractions and responsibilities that have become commonplace, and replace them with our enthusiasm and belief in ourselves as teachers.

My Experience as Someone who Hires and Manages Academics who Teach or Systems, Teams and Colleagues

When recruiting academic staff there are essential criteria that we can’t easily get around: a teaching qualification and/or a probationary period until you qualify. Experience of teaching. Experience of designing and possibly leading as a teacher. Note that not all of these criteria existed when I got my first job in 1990 – far from it – and that is a privilege that I acknowledge, and have never forgotten.  I was extraordinarily fortunate to get such a lucky break: a job as lecturer (on the basis of my existing academic qualifications and a year’s work in the Department in a different role), then the PhD, part-time, as a staff member.

Beyond the formal criteria, when I’m looking for and working with new academic teachers, what’s in my mind?  Based on my most recent experiences, I’m looking for people who can complement and expand current teaching capacity. How? By bringing in new subject areas, new networks of collaborators, new skills and methodologies. New personalities and different experiences. I’m also interested in candidates who show an understanding of the need for systems: systems to handle teaching design, delivery, quality control. You may not have experience of designing systems but showing you understand the necessity is reassuring. A system is a practice that works and that can be scaled up and rolled out to collective benefit. A system takes some of the weight off our individual shoulders and shares out the burden. Systems can be evaluated, tweaked, and tested, but they are crucial if we are to avoid chasing our tails.  Look for small funding pots and awards to help; I did this, for example, to devise and implement a system (a scheme) for student peer advisers to encourage and support student mobility (time abroad). Ask questions in interviews about the systems that are already in place, and how well they’re working, and show interest in contributing to improvements.

The peer advisor scheme takes me to another point, which is to consider linking your teaching and research. We’re familiar with the need for research-based teaching, but this is teaching-based research, or pedagogical research. Publishing a research article on a teaching practice that I had conceived, designed, funded, delivered, evaluated and presented to senior management was one of the most rewarding pieces of research I have ever conducted. That makes sense since it drew on my subjectivity and my experience, which loaded it with meaning. So consider publishing on your pedagogy: it could benefit us all, and it would certainly attract my attention.

A system, then, perhaps with underpinning research, builds capacity for all members of the team. Because when I hire, I’m consciously building a team of teachers (and researchers, of course). What does a team look like? It’s a combination of subject areas, skills and methodologies as above, but much more than that. It’s a range of experience and expertise. Crucially, it’s an understanding of the value of a team that is more than a random collection of individuals working in the same place.

A team too needs to attend to matters of equality, diversity and inclusion for their own sake, above and beyond university strategy or legal requirements. This framework requires active intervention, and I know I am definitely still learning. For example, faced with structural gender imbalance in the applicant pool, I have looked for ways to provide space and resources for aspiring female academics to subsequently compete more emphatically on the open job market. The route may be less direct, but valuable in its own right, I hope, if it goes right. More generally, I strive to keep my own practices and habits under review, both in order to identify and address unconscious bias but to also develop the confidence to champion candidates who for whatever reason – gender, but not only – may easily get overlooked.

What else do I want from and in a team? I want colleagues, first and foremost: co-workers who are inclined to work together, to build trust, to look out for each other, who are kind.  Let me say that again: who are kind, not only to each other, but to themselves.  Who are honest. Who are professional.  Like it or not (I like it), in contemporary academia (the UK at least), we are working alongside and measured against professionals from all sorts of backgrounds (such as former Royal Navy commanders); we’re really not that special. Being professional and expecting professional conduct from others is very often a saving grace in tricky situations, and I’m looking for colleagues who will contribute to a rounded workplace culture.

In Conclusion or We All Have our Limits

By way of conclusion, you may be wondering what I did about those big, no, huge lads on their mobile phones, in a classroom of a 100 or so second year undergrads, a class which had polarised (this was 2016) into Europhiles on one side, Eurosceptics on the other, and the bewildered and/or bored in the middle? I was already losing confidence in myself as a teacher.  Crucially, I could find no one in responsibility to help me restore that confidence.  What did I do?   I acknowledged that I wanted a different teaching environment and culture where I felt valued again, and allowed myself to let go. I wanted another academic job but I accepted that I might have had to rethink my whole career. Again, I got lucky, but the key was to accept that I needed a change and do what I could to bring it about. Moving jobs is not easy, however it looks from the outside, and we all have our horror stories. Let me share my ‘highlights’ of dipping my toes into the academic job market over the decades to reassure you that it really is rarely you, but them. One experience was where I was verbally offered a dream job only to have it subsequently retracted and another applicant appointed to a non-advertised position instead.  At another institution, the ‘interview’ was, in fact, a process of intense questioning by two separate, back-to-back panels of about 15 staff each (apparently it’s called a ‘carousel’, which I remembered from childhood as something fun), followed by one formal presentation to about 60 staff, and a final interview with seven senior managers, mostly men, one of whom asked me what I thought my colleagues said about me after one pint. ‘And what about after two pints?’, he persisted. I declined to answer seriously. They failed to appoint. But perhaps the best was a long, long time ago when the interview was stopped mid-flow to allow two warring factions on the panel to take their differences outside.

Now I mainly teach postgraduate students, many from overseas. Teaching-wise there are new challenges and a different vibe, but the lessons I’ve learned still apply. And as we work through the ripple effects on our jobs of the current Covid-19 situation, I think we could do worse than stick to the basics of what gets us through a crisis.  Your CV will be all the stronger if you can point to how you pulled together with colleagues to mitigate the worst of the impact on yourselves, your students and your institutions. In summary: be kind, be supportive, seek support, expect good behaviour – of students and colleagues – and call out bad behaviour, seeking cover if needs be. Respect your students and respect yourself. In hashtag terms,  I suggest #trustyourself.