Tag Archives: faculty

How to Survive: teaching a subject you know nothing about

Having managed to survive the break between academic years with minimal government assistance, out-of-hand dismissal from potential employers all over the city and sheer determination, my department decided to kick me in the festering wounds by not giving me any teaching work.
Since I had also been rejected from other universities beside my own (I felt like I would take the rejection show around the state) interdepartmental subjects were my last resort. The problem with teaching an interdepartmental subject is that the majority of the course is outside your area of expertise. This has put me in the position of teaching a subject that (many of) my students know more about than me.

Huge potential for unprecedented humiliation. Nodding, smiling, agreeing and turning questions back on students will only take you so far.

Now, the obvious solution would be to make sure you read ahead of the students and do some extra research so you have an understanding of the general academic context in which you’re teaching and know the subject matter intimately.

But that’s a lot of work, and in my situation, extremely boring. So as an alternative, I am trialing a new method, in which, using a similar technique to the one I detailed in the post on “Stealth Teaching”, I zero in on the one aspect, or even word of the lecture I did understand in an academic context, like that one (mis)use of the word “assemblage” or “affect” and build my class plan around it. So far, it’s strained and awkward, but also effective (and hardly affective).

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Stealth Teaching: The fine art of making oneself useful

As a graduate research student, you often find yourself teaching subjects that, while in your area of expertise, are so conservative and outdated that you feel bad, and perhaps even dirty for teaching them. I have an (untested, or semi-tested) way of dealing with this.

Step 1: Read the reading material on the course carefully. How can you adapt it to your own research? Trust me, there will be a way. Pick a key word or a reference from the bibliography of one of the readings, and go nuts.

Step 2: Identify students who are really enthusiastic about your area of research, especially if it’s an area that is not really taught at undergraduate level at the university. Encourage them in their pursuit of this research. Suggest they adapt essay questions to the area. Make sure it’s a fairly obscure area, but not so obscure so as not to be known. Pick something trendy, like Felix Guattari. Undergraduates love to be trendy.

Step 3: This enthusiastic army of research students, both undergraduates and postgraduates need supervisors. What to do? No one at the university you teach at has expertise in that area. They had better hire someone to teach all these young upstarts. That person had better be you, oh you who has recently finished your postgraduate studies and are looking for work. Oh, and you have a wealth of teaching experience.

This is how you stealth teach. It’s a work in progress for me, but it’s also about making sure the students I’m teaching get access to more recent research that what they otherwise would. I feel like I have an obligation to my students, and to the future of my discipline. The serious side of this is that a lot of contemporary critical theory gets ignored and dismissed by lecturers that may mean well, but are comfortable in their very specific areas that are usually pretty outdated. They will never seek to change or innovate their courses. You have to do it for them. And make sure (promise me) that you’ll never become one of them.

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tunnel vision

How to Avoid: Ever talking about your thesis topic

If you are a graduate research student, particularly if you have elected a field in humanities, the other human beings (including your undergraduate students if you’re tutoring) will only know one thing about you for sure; you’re supposed to be writing a thesis.

This is quite dangerous, because they’ll then ask what your thesis is about. As anyone who is a research student not in the final ten minutes of their candidature knows, this is a touchy, raw topic of discussion. People who are not research students tend to think they are being kind, and taking an interest by asking you about your thesis. There are two ways to deal with this sort of interrogation. The first (and infinitely more sensible way) is to have a prepared answer, I like to think of it as the thesis-pitch. This also does well when your undergraduates ask. The problem with the thesis-pitch method comes with further questioning. Either you can’t answer your interrogator without outlining a brief history of contemporary cultural theory so you can show them where your idea fits in, or (much more likely) you don’t actually know the answer to their question. Both scenarios end with you looking like a dickhead.

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The alternative method of engaging in thesis-related discussion involves reeling off the names of a few theorists and cultural artefacts (or whatever you’re writing about) that are so obscure as to put anyone off further questioning. There are two consequences of this technique; the first is that most people will inevitably think you are both a dullard, and a wanker. The second, is that very occasionally, someone will be around who actually does know what you’re talking about who will continue their investigation. You then find yourself being forced to defend an argument you barely understand and only just came up with the other day when pushed by your exacerbated supervisor. See above, re: dickhead.

There is, of course, the possibility that you have done enough work that you do know what your thesis is about, and if that is the case, I don’t see why you’re reading my advice in the first instance. Go and be a famous theorist instead, why don’t you?

How to Survive: Students attempting to ‘freak’ you out

Students really enjoy trying to freak their tutors out. I think it probably makes them feel cool or smarter or better about themselves or whatever, and variations on this theme also seem to involve trying to make their tutors feel old, inadequate or poor. Of course, we are almost always all three. Anyway, I think at these moments, however stunned you might be (and I am usually pretty stunned) it’s important to try not to look like a fuckwit (thereby denying the student their jollies).

Recently, I had a student bail me up, and tell me that his bestie (who was standing beside him, grinning) was a poetry major, who delivered his performances via telepathy. This was supposed to mean he held a microphone to his head for three minutes while performing, and thought his poem for an unsuspecting (open mike?) audience. My student insisted the rustling coming from his microphone was his “synapses firing” rather than very obviously, his hair. In this instance, I went with it, grinning, and asking when and where he was next doing a reading, while being coy enough to not appear gullible. Or in other words, fight petulant irony with petulant irony.

Undergraduate students often think they’re being super original and fascinating when they’re not. I can forgive this of those who are straight out of high school because they’re young and silly and it’s all fun and games until someone loses a theorist. However, on occasion, as a tutor, you will be required to teach someone who is as old, or older than you. This shifts the teaching power balance in a pretty significant way, especially if that student notices, and decides to make an issue out of it.

When I was an undergraduate student, I witnessed a classics tutor in his late 20s being called a “young upstart” by a rather mature age student in my class. She was a retiree, doing the class for the novelty, and was upset by being failed for handing in half a page of dot points, in the place of a 1500 word essay.

One of my students recently told me she was old, but not as old as me. Which was a fascinating calculation considering she’d been in and out of university for several more years than I, thereby making her significantly older. Regardless of the mathematical situation, she felt like we shared a special ‘oldies’ bond that gave her license to giggle inappropriately and disengage from any theoretically rigourous discussion by observing that it was “stupid”.

Another variation on the freak out, where you really need to keep your head, is when your thesis supervisor or some other tenured member of faculty tries it. Usually, they will slip something along the lines of “when I was sunbaking nude on the weekend…” or “while I was snorting coke in the toilets at the conference…” into an otherwise tame conversation. This is a test. It is essential not to let your face register any affectation of shock, no matter how outlandish the original comment was. Otherwise, you will be considered puritanical, conservative and as dull as the undergraduates.

How to Survive: End of Semester Drinks

This week was my final week of teaching for the year, as it was for many of us. This means that there were, and will continue to be functions at which you, as a graduate research student will be forced to drink with the undergraduates that you teach and/or senior members of faculty and permanent staff.

As there is never a decent budget (or any budget) for end of semester events, you will find yourself in a position where you are expected to buy alcohol for your consumption, and in many cases, the consumption of those around you.

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This is particularly galling, as undergraduate students and faculty staff members are inevitably in a more stable financial position than you. Especially as the end of teaching also means the end of your meagre casual salary for the next four months, and the beginning of careers in bar work, retail or unemployment benefits.

In the case of drinking with your students, all the usual techniques for avoiding purchasing alcohol will be detected in such an exposed setting, so it is best to give in, buy a jug or two of the cheapest beer the uni pub has to offer, and accept your place as the hero of all students with minimal outlay. The only issue that then presents itself is that you have to be seen to drink some of the beer you have purchased.

Faculty members tend not to demand alcohol en masse, but rather approach individually, so as long as you can avoid talking to some of them until someone else has gotten them drunk, you should be fine.

Aside from the financial obligations synonymous with the end of semester, there are also many social pitfalls. Most importantly, if you get a bit tipsy drinking the swill you bought your students, try to resist encouraging them to tell you about all the other tutors and lecturers they hate. Especially avoid confirming their cynical observations about your colleagues, no matter how accurate the accusations may be because they are usually the ones *kind* enough to employ you to teach, and they’re usually behind you when you are talking about them. Remember that students probably say the same things about you behind your back and some of them could be spies for your subject coordinator.

Similarly, at staff functions, try not to get drunk and let a fellow tutor or faculty member manipulate you into divulging who you’ve slept with, or hate, within your field. No matter how fun, gossipy and secretive it feels when you’re giddy on cheap gin, it always gets back to them, and the academic world is way too small for that sort of thing.