Reflections on teaching in higher education

For the most part, the majority of my blog posts focus on the struggles I face when writing my thesis. However, this is not the only task that doctoral level students undertake. Yes, writing a thesis is THE product that one produces during their studies, but I don’t think that doing a PhD should only be about the thesis. There are opportunities to engage within and outside the doctoral research community. For me, this involved gaining teaching experience at university level.

William Hogarth's 1736 engraving, "Scholars at a Lecture" from Wikipedia
William Hogarth’s 1736 engraving, “Scholars at a Lecture” from Wikipedia

My undergraduate degree majored in elementary (primary) level education which provided a fantastic grounding to my subsequent career as an English language teacher.  The move from elementary level teaching to English language teaching is not direct but my initial TESOL certificate introduced me to a different educational field of English language teaching.  It wasn’t the easiest of transitions because at the time I was used to teaching children and the majority of my students were adult learners but over time I’ve managed to adapt and become a learner myself.n other words, it took me a while to understand that the crux of improving upon my teaching practice was to be a learner. I spent a lot of time trying out different activities to get my students to respond differently where, in fact, it was me that needed to change. In other words, it took me a while to understand that the crux of improving upon my teaching practice was to be a learner.

It wasn’t until three year ago that I found myself at a similar crossroads when I taught my first undergraduate and postgraduate level classes. The move from English language teaching to lecturing at university level is certainly not direct either but my previous teaching experienced helped prepare me to become better at adapting my own professional practice. Still, in many ways I feel like I’m still getting used to teaching in a HE setting.

Final Year Annual Review (duh!)

Annual Reviews in my department are yearly meetings where students discuss their progress with an independent reviewer in the presence of their supervisory team. These are meant to occur at the end of each academic year in order to identify any potential issues that may make progress difficult. Not all Annual Reviews have an independent reviewer. Sometimes it’s just you and your supervisory team. My Annual Review this time around was with an independent reviewer from my department, who was conducting the meeting, and my first supervisor, who there as an observer.

From http://www.morguefile.com/archive/#/?q=doctor&photo_lib=morgueFile
From http://www.morguefile.com/archive/display/45443

As my supervisor explained, Annual Reviews are more like a yearly check ups to see if you’ve got any bugs in your system that need to be addressed and not an assessment to see if you’re fit to live. Well, since he put it THAT way…I started to view my Annual Review as less of a ‘final exam’ and more of a discussion of my thesis progress to date.

The actual meeting was surprisingly enjoyable! I had worked myself up into a ball of nerves that it didn’t occur to me that this Annual Review could be kind of…fun. It was still challenging and difficult – I was under no allusions this would be easy – but the process was highly constructive.  The reviewer was a fresh pair of eyes who would be seeing my research differently and was able to provide useful feedback that would strengthen my thesis. I learned a lot in that meeting, and I’d like to share it with you:

file000590219975
From http://www.morguefile.com/archive/display/28427

1) Understand the question being asked: This seems obvious (duh) but in practice it’s not always that clear. In order to provide a clear answer you need to understand what is being asked. Sometimes, what is being asked in not always in the form of a question but implied a description or a statement. Not a useful strategy, but it happens. At certain points during this meeting I found myself rambling because I was wasn’t quite sure of the question. In hindsight I should have asked for clarification instead of trying to talk my way into an answer.

2) Answer the question being asked: Another obvious one (duh) yet this actually takes some practice! This meeting taught me that I like to begin my answers with some background context and then (eventually) address the question. In my case this wasn’t a great strategy because by the time I addressed the question I had thrown up a lot of ‘targets’ for the independent reviewer to query. At this point I had to back pedal and answer the new questions in order to address the original question. This was an interesting process because I had to think on my feet and ‘unpick’ my answer in order for it to make sense to the listener whereas I could have saved myself the stress had I directly answered the question in the first place.

3) Identify the ‘feeder’ questions: These type of questions are more prompts that would allow you to expand on a topic that should (ideally) be comfortable to answer. There were points during my review where it was clear that I was struggling and my reviewer was feeding me questions to help ease me into a more straightforward answer but did I realise what she was doing? I did…in one of those out of body experiences, where I was watching myself ramble on and inwardly told myself to stop and address the actual question (see point 2). Had I identified her questioning strategy sooner, I would have (again) saved myself the stress (duh).

The experience taught me that I could use more practice answering questions in this type of situation.  It was a good step towards preparing for my viva, where just learning how to understand what is being asked was a worthwhile exercise!

Day 22: Rescheduling and switching gears

I’ve been busy the last few weeks really ramping up the work I’m doing on this thesis.  Not just writing and getting words down on paper but actually…thinking. It sounds a bit weird, but it’s really the only way I can explain how, conceptually, things are coming together in ways that enables me to articulate it on the page.  It’s been gaining pace yet, I often ask myself if what I’ve got so far is enough. Then, when those feelings of insecurity start to creep in, I remind myself that I’m running out of time (HELLO!) and I need to get on with my work instead of wallowing in my own emotions. Moments of panic do that do you! 😛

Photo by Leo Reynolds via Flickr http://goo.gl/j6kH5
Courtesy of Leo Reynolds via Flickr http://goo.gl/j6kH5 under CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0

And so, here I am, on Day “22” which is technically not really Day “22” since renewing my student visa has thrown a spanner into the schedule BUT, as my supervisors repeatedly mention (with kindness I might add), that this in no way impedes the fact that I need to have a credible draft by September 1st.  This means that the next 7 weeks are now in high gear mode.  I’ll still be counting down the next 22 days as a measure of my progress because, if I didn’t have this visa issue, it would mean that in 22 days I would have had hand in my submission pending form (the form that essentially states that I would have submitted by 1st Sept or else fail).  Basically I have some wiggle room, but not a lot! I still need to have a full draft by September. So here we go. The last leg of this journey.

Deep breaths.