This past year was my first teaching in the Drama department at Queen Mary, University of London, and it’s been quite a change from teaching in a Canadian university. Here, “classes” are “modules”, “programs” are “courses”, lectures are uncommon, and academic staff (not “faculty”) are all administrators as well as teachers and researchers. More prosaically: semesters are shorter, contact hours fewer, and students are differently prepared for their studies. Navigating all of these changes has been challenging, but has also taught me some very useful things about my daily teaching practice – things I suspect will stay with me, and will transfer to any university environment anywhere.
Below, the top five things I learned about myself as a teacher when I moved from the Canadian to the British academic system.
1. I teach way, way too much material.
Less is more. Think about it: are students learning the what, or the how? I’d already realised this, to some degree, after earlier teaching mistakes (when you’re already behind in class number two, something has got to give). But this year brought home for me how useless it can be to offer “extra” content when you’ve only got two hours per week (really, including moving-between-class time and settling-down time, 1h45m…), and when students are still struggling with round one. I’ve decided, for example, next year to teach only three plays (down from seven) in my module on theatre and performance in North America. The rest of the time we will use to synthesise ideas, to come to grips with stuff we can find online about the plays in production and the artists who created them, and to prepare questions to ask those artists during scheduled Skype visits. Less really is more: the students will have three profound and deeply travelled experiences, instead of remembering one day that they might have at some point read that play by what’s-her-name.
2. Administration sucks my teaching brain.
Admin is a fact of life for many academics, and for most academics in the British system, where the administrative workload is comparatively heavy. We tend to think admin takes time away from our research, but I found this past year that what suffered most from time spent doing administrative labour was my teaching. Admin is pernicious: everyone complains about it, but really it’s an excellent excuse to procrastinate about other things. Like teaching prep. I know now that setting boundaries around my administrative labour will directly benefit my teaching, and therefore my students. Totally worth it.
3. Pocket lectures are the new black.
What’s a “pocket lecture”? It’s a bite-sized chunk of key information that students need but that need not take up a whole lot of time in class. It fits perfectly between group or independent writing exercises, and makes students feel like they have a very clear take-away that they can apply while doing homework or bring to the next session. It’s ideal if you have a room full of students who claim they don’t like lectures but seem strangely attached to your words of wisdom. Find the most important topic in your lesson for the day, locate that topic’s key term, and expand for five bullet points.
4. Students need to write more. In class.
I’ve always used group devising exercises to work through questions and problems in class, but only this year did I learn how powerful free-writing in advance of these group exercises can be for students. With the help of my colleague Kelly Peake from Thinking Writing at QMUL, I now have an armful of terrific, super-short writing tasks that I ask students to do on a regular basis – usually two or three per class session. (See below, under comments, for some elaboration of what this looks like in practice.) I never see this writing work: it is for the students alone. It is a way for them to process their thoughts, and something for them to refer to when I call on them, or when I divide them into groups. It’s extremely useful for introverted students who are whip-smart but very shy.
5. No alcohol on school nights, ever.
Not even a glass of wine. I am officially old.