Tales from the classroom

I have mentioned before in this blog that, before I took up my present role, I greatly enjoyed teaching. Though I suppose it is not for me to say so, I believe I was a good teacher. But this did not come to me naturally.

Recently I was going through some old papers, and I came across a set of notes I put together for my very first ever lecture, which I delivered in October 1980. Before that, I had for two years delivered small group tutorials in Cambridge, but in 1980 I was appointed Lecturer in Industrial Relations in Trinity College Dublin, and on that day in October I was to give my first ever lecture. I knew there were to be some 50 or so students in the room, all in their final year. I knew I would not even be the oldest person there, and to be perfectly frank I was terrified. I did not know if I could hold their attention or earn their respect, or indeed whether I would be able to control the proceedings.

In my notes I had written down everything I was intending to say, right down to the introductory remarks and the jokes. I would come in firing on all cylinders, holding (as I planned) the newspaper of that day and pointing out the stories that made the subject we were embarking upon relevant. Thankfully for me, 1980 was still a year of industrial action and unrest, so I knew I’d find the relevant news stories.

The hour came and I embarked upon my ordeal. Actually, no ordeal at all. The students probably took pity on me, and welcomed me generously, and worked with me – and I never looked back. For the years that followed, every time I was due to teach I would feel a strong sense of excitement and enthusiasm. The only time I worried again was when, two years later, I started teaching first year students. There were approximately 250 of these in one lecture theatre, and I knew from colleagues that they were hard to control. One very senior economics professor told me he was terrified every time he entered the theatre with this group. Forgive my smugness, they never bothered me and I found teaching them as exhilarating as any other group.

And yet, how good was I really? In my ten years in Trinity I never used anything that could be called technology to underpin my teaching. I think I may on two occasions have used overhead slides – but just two occasions. And maybe I should be slow to admit this in case anyone from those days decides there’s still time to sue me, but I occasionally threw chalk at students if they were not paying attention.

But at least I regarded teaching as a total pleasure, and my students as my partners. Occasionally I would get very argumentative ones, and that was always a particular joy. These students taught me to communicate in an articulate manner, and much of what I have done since has been the result of that learning process. As was my research, because I would always try out my research ideas with tutorial groups, and often their arguments sharpened my own thinking.

I have enjoyed all aspects of academic life – I used to marvel that a university would actually pay me to do what I so loved doing – but nothing more than the thrill of the classroom when a lecture or other class is going well. It doesn’t always, of course, but when it does there is nothing to beat it. Universities are now complex organisations with a variety of key tasks and objectives; but at the heart of it still is the mission to spread and analyse knowledge in partnership with the students.

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2 Comments on “Tales from the classroom”

  1. Wendymr Says:

    As one of this particular ‘hard to control’ cohort, I’d venture to suggest that the description says more about the teacher than the class – and I do remember the professor in question. But certainly teaching a group of 250 involves a very different set of skills and techniques than teaching 50. With 50 it’s still just about possible to introduce elements of interactivity; with 250, and in the kind of lecture theatre generally used for a class of that size, usually not. You’re then a prisoner of your material and your crowd-control skills, not to mention ability to project or else make the microphone work properly (Can’t hear you! is a great delaying tactic for students…).

    I suspect that the teacher whose words were most avidly hung upon that year was the politics lecturer (who shall remain unnamed) who made his own roll-ups in class and smoked them, in complete defiance of the brand-new no-smoking signs everywhere.

    These days, of course, your class of 250 – especially first-year students – will be expecting the PowerPoint handout that means they may not even need to stay for the lecture, or that (if they do stay) they don’t need to pay attention.

    (Throwing chalk? Surely you jest!)

  2. Ultan Says:

    I must have missed the chalk being thrown (or maybe it missed me). It would have taken a very good shot to waken Brendan McDufflecoat and Co. snoozing up the back of the Jonathan Swift Theatre in those first year ESS Employment / Labour Law lectures.

    I do recall some comments about Irish Times editorials, “warm armpit” relationships between employers and employees (an expression I retain and like to use), and a certain Mr. Ward of Grunwick finding their mark though in later years…

    Ah. that lecturer with the rollups – so easy to impersonate (and a fine lecturer). He would borrow rolling papers from the front row on occasion. He’s still there.

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