April 26, 2013

WATE PGR: Nomination and transformation

Writing about web page http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/services/ldc/funding/watepgr/

After a highly successful inaugural year, it is brilliant to see the Warwick Awards for Teaching Excellence for PGR students running again this academic year. Students and staff can all nominate a PGR student who has made a difference through motivating, inspiring and engaging students and through creating an environment where everyone feels supported. If you are a postgraduate research student who knows someone who is passionate about their teaching and who you think makes a real difference, or if you’re an undergraduate who has been taught by a PGR student and want to record your appreciation, then go ahead and nominate. The process of nomination could not be easier, since it can be done in person at drop-in sessions at central locations across campus or online via the official WATE PGR website.

Last year, I was lucky enough to win one of the five inaugural awards and consider this to be a career-changing moment. I still feel very fortunate to have been nominated, since all winners and nominees are clearly passionate about their teaching and about passing on this interest to their students. The range of excellent teaching practice carried out by postgraduate researchers is simply staggering, and last year the impact of these teachers on undergraduates was made especially clear. Far from being seen to be in some way ‘inferior’ to their fully-fledged lecturer colleagues, PhD students at Warwick are often at the cutting-edge of university teaching.

Last year’s winners and commendees were remarkable for the variation of their teaching activities and techniques. Nearly all had been involved, like myself, in some form of Widening Participation or Outreach activity, while they were also united in their support for students both inside and outside the classroom. From the Law School to Sociology and from Film Studies to Chemistry, this group of PhD tutors underlined just how important teaching is to them, and, perhaps more importantly, to the students with whom they come into contact. If ever there was evidence that there is more to a PhD, and to a university, than the research process, this is surely it.

It is not easy to ‘motivate, inspire and engage’ students. Even experienced lecturers can find this a daunting task and struggle to translate their excellence in research into excellence in teaching. Indeed, this is part of the reason the Learning and Development Centre exists in the first place; to support the on-going development of university teachers as they progress through their careers.

In his book For The University, Thomas Docherty argues that teaching should be an essentially transformative experience, not just for students but also for teachers.[1] Teachers are, Docherty notes, students themselves, since their knowledge and understanding of their subject matter, and their teaching resources and methods, are in constant evolution. The opportunity to transform oneself socially and culturally, to take risks and to experiment are all key to Docherty’s understanding of genuine university teaching, informed by his reading of American theorist John Dewey. The opportunity to take risks and to engage in this journey of discovery requires considerable confidence on the part of the teacher. It is much easier for teachers, at whatever level of their career, to stick to teaching methods that they feel comfortable with, which might involve classes based around established facts in traditional classroom settings.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with sticking to long-held teaching styles if they engage students. Yet teaching and learning can be so much more interesting and can genuinely prove a transformative process for teacher and student. The WATE PGR Awards recognise PhD tutors who have experimented in their teaching at a very early stage in their careers, through exploring open-ended teaching and taking risks. Through their focus on engaging, motivating and inspiring students, the awards also recognise those tutors who have helped to transform their students.

For those nominated for the award, and for those ten teachers who are named winners or commendees, this process will itself prove transformative. I am often asked by colleagues in my department or in the wider University what the award has meant to me. While this is by no means an easy question to answer, I would suggest that the award has given me a new-found sense of autonomy to pursue experimental teaching and learning in a variety of settings.

Since winning the award, I have taken risks, completely re-shaping a previously popular debate on the Algerian War into an open-space learning session[2], in which students became both researchers and producers, finding out more about a particular subject than I ever knew previously, as documented in a previous blog post. The award gave me the confidence to pursue this activity and to introduce a whole swathe of real-life, ‘authentic’ resources, including an attempt at analysing the Twitter feed of the far-right Front National leader Marine Le Pen, despite having little previous experience of the relevant methodologies. All of this has transformed my understanding of my own specialist area (the French extreme right), through the students’ comments and questions, and has transformed my teaching practices. The award has, indeed, not only provided me with an impetus to pursue experimental teaching methods and style, but has also provided valuable evidence of my passion for teaching to include at the very top of my CV.

To be nominated for this award will transform the careers of many PhD tutors in much the same way that their teaching helps to transform the lives of their students. If, then, you know of someone who really does inspire, who does experiment and who is prepared to take risks in their teaching to motivate you or your students, do please nominate them. As members of the University, we are all part of the transformative experience so vividly described by Docherty—nominating a PhD tutor will therefore demonstrate to them, and to others, the importance of their excellent teaching and learning to everyone at Warwick.

[1] Thomas Docherty, For the University: Democracy and the Future of the Institution (London: Bloomsbury, 2011)

[2] Transformation and risk-taking also feature prominently in the pioneering work of Warwick’s Institute of Advanced Teaching and Learning (IATL) on open-space teaching and learning. See Nicholas Monk, Carol Chillington-Rutter, Jonathan Neelands and Jonathan Heron, Open-Space Learning: A Study in Transdisciplinary Pedagogy (London: Bloomsbury, 2011)

- One comment Not publicly viewable

  1. Sarah Richardson

    As one of the judges for last year’s competition (and for this year’s), I have to echo David’s comments. And, it was truly humbling to see the extent of excellent practice in our community of postgraduate teachers. I learned alot.

    28 Apr 2013, 18:42

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