Tag Archives: semester

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).

Advertisements

How to Survive: the break between academic years

When you are a postgraduate research student, you will most likely be employed as a casual academic tutor. This means for about 5 months of the year, you will have no income (other than your scholarship if you are lucky enough to have one). The break between academic years is almost four months long (the mid-year break is almost 2 months long) so you have to entertain yourself with casual retail, administration or bar work until the semester starts again and you can resume teaching the wonderful undergraduate students.

Here are some strategies for surviving the break between academic years:

1. Government support. Some countries have some sort of government system to hand out money to poor people. In Australia, we are lucky enough to have Centrelink. This is a semi-privatised/contracted out system used to distribute government money. The problem with a privatised system, is that they strategically degrade, humiliate and undermine you for kicks. This means, that despite the high number of PhD graduates who end up in the dole queue, when you explain that you are a casual tutor between academic years to a Centrelink worker, they will invariably ask you whether you have finished high school. They may also insist you attend a Christian mission so that they may ‘assess’ you for ‘job readiness’. They see nothing wrong with canceling your payments if you express an ideological objection to being required to go to a religious organisation. Even when you cite the history of Western civilisation to illustrate that nothing good can come from anything called a ‘mission’. This means that at this time of year, around the nation, the despairing cry of “but I have a Masters degree…” can be heard from Centrelink offices far and wide.

2. Casual Retail Sales Assistant. One of the fabulous opportunities available to the graduate research student in the break between academic years is a career as a casual retail sales assistant. As an applicant for a casual retail sales assistant position, the graduate research student is required to show why they really want to work for that shop. Desperately. Passionately. Beyond all others. The application process will resemble a PhD proposal without the intellectual stimulation. Long, dull bureaucratic, and full of bullshit. If you are a successful applicant, you will then be lucky enough to be ‘trained’ for several days, or weeks, at reduced pay. ‘Training’ actually just means working, and being either ignored, or screamed at by the either a) 40-something trying to pull off 20-something gay man or b) 50-something trying to pull off steel grey hair battle axe woman. It may also include being required to pretend to work when there is nothing to do so that the overlord manager feels more secure about his or her micro-fascist dictatorship. Then there’s always the exciting treat of dealing with the general public, who are both more ignorant and more arrogant than the average undergraduate student.

3. Administration. A postgraduate research student can often find a wonderful job as an administrative assistant. These jobs are often seductively well-paid. They are a trap, and they make you want to die in a way that even the casual fury of retail can’t. It has something to do with doing a job without any purpose whatsoever. When you know that the world would be utterly unchanged whether the administration is done or not. It’s likely that other people in the office wouldn’t notice the difference.

4. Bartending. A career for the graduate research student that I have never personally pursued, but the late nights, tight tops, drugs and blatant sexual harassment perpetrated by both customers and fellow staff has always appealed. Maybe I’ll give that one a go next time around, because at least it’s probably fairly easy to get away with drinking on the job.

Just remember to document any jobs you apply for so that you can demonstrate your ‘job readiness’ to the Christian mission administering a government service as they remind you how useless and uselessly over-educated you are.

When’s March?

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.

tunnel

tunnel vision

How to Avoid: Bumping into students in public

There is no foolproof way of avoiding bumping into your students in the street and the more you teach, the worse it inevitably becomes. There are a few ways to minimise seeing students outside of the university, especially when you’re in compromising situations, like; drunk, eating or making out with a stranger.

Drunk or otherwise impaired is the worst way to bump into a student, especially a current student, because your memory and judgment is inhibited and you’re probably not going to remember their name. Don’t worry, if they’re a girl, their name is probably Laura, or Lauren. If they’re a boy, their name is probably Michael or John. Mumble the most appropriate sounding of these options, and hope that they’re drunk too and don’t notice. It’s also important not to choose a bar heavily frequented by undergraduates (or anyone else under 20). This is probably something you do anyway, but sometimes they sneak in unexpectedly. Therefore, avoid drinking within a 2km radius of the university you teach at. This will help you avoid the students who live on campus, who are the worst because they’re the richest and the most obtuse. The only exception to this rule is a pub near campus so scungey and full of old men that an undergraduate would never enter it. If there is one of these, make it the secret drinking destination of choice after class.

Trendy bars and cheap bars are also very dangerous, but the danger should probably be endured because what are you doing in a bar that is neither trendy nor cheap? What sort of research student are you anyway? Medieval Literature?

Avoiding students when eating out is a problem because undergraduate students either enjoy impoverished eateries for the charm, or are actually impoverished, like most graduate research students. Try to convince the nice waiter at the dumpling place that you need to sit in the darkest corner of the room if you see a student approaching, clutching at their $5 long neck of Tsing Tao. If your student still spots you, and is not content to politely wave, try not to have a mouth full of food when they approach, their clothes are probably more expensive than you can afford, so you probably don’t want to spit food on them. The fortunate part about eating somewhere extremely cheap, is that the restaurateur is all too happy to be rid of you, so they can peddle their steamed carbs to the next table of half-drunk hipsters. This means that you can excuse yourself from a conversation with your student at any time with minimal apology, and leave quickly without being notably rude.

Finally, it can be quite awkward to be found making out with someone in the dark corner of a bar by a student. (Or really, by anyone, especially if they have a camera and access to the internet.) The best way to avoid this, is not to be a such a skank that you would do that in the first place. But failing that, just make sure the person you are making out with doesn’t suddenly become one of your students. Or you may have to dob yourself in and wear the shame of double-marking.

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.

08-21-2009_135

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: 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.

08-21-2009_124

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.