Alex Riggs, University of Nottingham
Alex Riggs is a second-year PhD student researching politics and ideas of the American left, c. 1973-1988. In this blog, he reflects on his experience as a participant in the 2021/22 cohort of the EMC Training to Teach Workshops and the EMC PGR Mentoring Scheme.
For every PGR historian, the first teaching experience is a moment of particular trepidation. Having sat through plenty of seminars to get to this stage, teaching might seem the most familiar of all. Yet it might also be the most mysterious- what secret wisdom had our old tutors tapped into to appear knowledgeable about every subject and in command of every session? And when PGR teaching situations diverge from the norm of being assigned to a first-year module group, the enigma seems even more elusive. Those colleagues that find teaching opportunities elsewhere return from the faraway lands of Sheffield and Leicester with the aura of having cracked the code.
The EMC’s Teaching and Mentoring Scheme removes much of the mystery. Through workshops, mentoring, and practical experience, it becomes clear that for even the most experienced lecturers there is no magic formula. Rather, teaching itself is an ongoing learning process, one that requires an open-mind and a willingness to adapt. It may be cliched to say, but no two seminars are ever the same. Having been part of the EMC’s scheme, I feel far more confident in embracing that unpredictability. In this blog, I’ll explain the stages of the programme and what I found useful from them, before offering some brief reflections on teaching. None of them will be revelatory to experienced pedagogues, but I hope other seminar tutors-in-waiting will find them useful and reassuring.
The programme started with workshops led by Matthew Hefferan, which provided an ideal opportunity to start thinking about the practicalities of teaching. Following an initial introductory session, these covered the topics of task-based teaching and learning; teaching with electronic resources; marking and assessment; designing and running modules; and teaching as part of an academic career. As such, the workshops gave a useful outline of the variety of methods that can be used in teaching, but also a sense of what the livelihood of being a lecturer entails beyond the classroom, thinking about elements like office hours, marking, departmental roles, pay and promotion, to name just a few. By being able to discuss these issues in a small group setting with our peers and someone that had experienced the transition from PhD to full-time staff in Dr Hefferan, the workshops provided an excellent theoretical introduction to teaching and its associated issues.
The issues discussed in these could be applied to the classroom initially in the observation stage. This included the chance to see teaching take place in a variety of settings, from the broadest introductory first-year modules to the most specialised third-year discussions. These had the practical benefit of introducing me to the students that I would be teaching in future weeks for the first-year Contemporary World groups and third-year Life During Wartime special subject, but also being able to see the strategies and activities discussed in the workshops in action, including through my EMC mentor Sarah Holland’s first-year Learning History group. When combined with the opportunity to discuss these with the seminar tutors, this was another important experience in deciphering not just worked well in theory, but also in practice in the classroom, as well as an invaluable chance to discuss the logics that went into planning the structure of sessions. Having had these discussions, I now had the chance to put these into practice with my own plans for the sessions that I would lead. These were again done with the advice of those that I had observed, again giving me the resource of substantial experience of what works in the classroom.
After this, it was finally time for the nerve-wracking moment of teaching for the first-time. As anxious as I felt though, I was certainly far more prepared having had those conversations with my mentors. In the classroom, the importance of contingency that had been discussed in the abstract suddenly became very concrete. Faced with five first-years in each of my Contemporary World that had done very little to no reading, my allotted time for discussion of the assigned articles was something of a struggle. This gave me my first takeaway from my experiences- don’t be afraid to move on. You only have fifty minutes in a first or second-year seminar (and it will feel like far less), so don’t lose too many of them searching in vain for someone to mention the argument you really wanted someone to raise. I found primary sources far more useful for conducive discussion- I used extracts from songs and journalism in these seminars, and they worked very well as something that even those that had not done any reading could engage with and contribute to the session through. These activities underscored the importance of contingency in less positive ways too. The technology seemed determined to stop the class seeing any of the film clips I had prepared, with the sound not working for the first seminar, and no power whatsoever in the second! Low attendance also meant that my plan to divide the group in two and have them discuss different sets of sources was no longer feasible. Adaptability was the key lesson here as well, namely the need to have contingencies for when time, tech, or truancy have other ideas for your plans. Again, there’s no secret to it, just having the confidence in your convictions for what can be done under the circumstances and what can’t.
As I moved onto second and third year teaching, the task felt increasingly enjoyable. As absurd as it might seem when you first stand at the lectern, you may actually have fun teaching after a few sessions. This was undoubtedly helped by having a mostly full, engaged, class for my third-year seminar, making the task of generating discussion far easier, but the confidence that these sessions provided was vital in allowing me to feel assured when leading the class. This underscored another key point- a good seminar is always a combination of a good plan and an engaged class. Of course, the former can help to produce the latter, but nor is it a guarantee. Even the best well-thought-out plan can fall flat if a group won’t engage (and this could be for a multitude of reasons beyond lack of ability or commitment, like upcoming assignments or health issues), so don’t take it personally if this happens. The final discussions after these were also incredibly useful for reinforcing these lessons. As well as the more concrete discussions had with those observing me, the more general teaching discussions had with Sarah Holland as my EMC mentor were especially important for crystallising the points discussed in this blog and gave me significant reassurance that they were true even for those with years of experience.
In summary then, the EMC’s Teaching and Mentoring programme has given me an excellent introduction to the world of academic History teaching. It cannot of course provide many of the benefits that the standard PGR teaching experience can provide in terms of pay, pastoral roles, and developing a relationship with your class, but it can provide a thorough, guided introduction to a role that is often defined by being thrown in the deep end. As such, I now feel that I can enter the teaching world with confidence, and stop looking for magic formulas.