Report from the 2019 ECPR roundtable, which I organised and chaired
Many of us care about teaching.
We invest in developing good courses, staying up to date with innovative teaching methods, and redesigning course materials to reflect new scholarly research.
But what role does (good) teaching play in advancing the academic (career) path of political scientists?
How can we take teaching seriously, and still ensure there is enough time for research and publishing?
How to be serious about caring about students, while not having to carry the burden on working overtime constantly?
During this Roundtable on 23 August at ECPR’s 2018 General Conference in Hamburg, we invited four academics with different national higher education backgrounds to discuss the role teaching could and should play in our academic self-understanding.
Chair Heidi Maurer London School of Economics and Political Science
- Ariadna Ripoll Servent University of Bamberg
- Petr Suchý Masaryk University
- Ian Manners University of Copenhagen
- Karolina Pomorska University of Leiden
First, the panel reflected on their own experiences on what role teaching does and should play in their national and institutional contexts, and how they learnt to teach and innovate. The interventions highlighted the importance of personal experiencesfor their commitment to teaching: ‘I was taught well, and that is why I want my students to learn well’ (Ian). Early opportunities to co-teach with more experienced professors can be an insightful first way to learn and observe (Ariadna).
In some environments, teaching and reflecting on one’s teaching can be a lonely activity and without formal exchange opportunities. Engaging and looking for opportunities to get feedback and inspiration through professional networks can help in these cases.
We want our students to take ownership of their learning, and as academics we also can take ownership for being good and inspiring instructors. Getting started might often feel painful, but learning by mistakes is normal. It is important that departments provide this room for experimentation (Petr).
All universities now have some kind of teaching and learning support unit, but studies also show that they are not a suitable means to improve what academics do in the classroom. Ian recommends a reflective, hands-on approach: there are great resources out there, which one can use to get inspired (check pedagogical literature but also YouTube featuring, for example, Ken Robinson or Eric Mazur). But also we should time and again reflect on our own practice: ‘go and tape your lectures, and then watch them’.
All panellists share a common understanding in their suggestions: as an academic community we should care about teaching, but one also needs to be smart, especially at the beginning of one’s academic career: promotions are guided by research output. Or as one panellist put it: ‘an excellent teaching record can get you the foot in the door like an interview, but alone it will not get you the job’.
The amount of teaching varies considerably between national contexts (Karolina), and especially for the first jobs after PhD, junior colleagues are advised to check carefully for teaching loads but also group sizes to be taught in order to compare possible vacancies. The amount of teaching-only contracts is increasing, and if one has a choice, it is always better to go for a vacancy that allows one to combine as much research (and possibility for publishing) as possible.
‘Collegiality and solidarity’
In a second round we took a broader perspective and discussed the position of teaching in European higher education and universities. Again, the issue of precarious teaching jobs was high on the agenda. The panel emphasised that often respective colleagues simply do not have a choice, and that this is also where it needs our whole community and profession to take responsibility: collegiality and solidarity are important to ensure that higher education evolves in a way that does not further split up our community.
The problem is also that ‘universities often do not know how to care about teaching’, and that is also where our community can step in and take responsibility to shape the discourse.
Evaluations measure all kinds of things but surely not the learning process of our students. They are often just a management tool that does not measure what we as educators would want or need to know. Quality assessment is not necessarily bad, as it brings accountability, but it depends how it is done. We as educators but also as managing academics must not buy into superficial discourse and can also do more to question the reliability and validity of such tools.
Peer assessment should be used to have conversations, not rank each other; and we should all dare to use our networks much more strongly to get support for teaching, learn from each other, but also to show solidarity.
The aim of the Roundtable was not to come up with definite answers, but to provide an impetus for a more open and supportive discussion on our role as educators in higher education. We hope that many more such discussions will follow that create the necessary collegiality and solidarity from which we can all profit.
Tips from our panellists
Ariadna Ripoll Servent
- Prepare less and give time to students for learning: as researchers we want to cover as much as possible in the time that we have with our students, and often we over-fill this time. Prepare less, and ensure that you plan in time for your students to digest and have the learning process. Their learning needs more than just listening to a certain aspect once.
- Identify ONE (and only ONE) thing per session that you want your students to take away. This also ensures that the learning objective is more about understanding than plain knowledge.
- Consider healthy work times: do not send emails at the weekends; time and again reflect on your work time and check for efficiency gains. We must resist the temptation where working overtime becomes the norm and is expected.
- Develop healthy expectations: you will not please everybody all the time, and it is not your fault.
- Be compassionate with your students, but also consider especially for assessment of final degree work: who deserves the degree, and who does not.
- Be and remain patient: with yourself but also with your students. Learning is not a mechanical process, and it needs time.
- Foster and cherish collegiality in various forms: engage in co-teaching if possible, and form teams to support each other also in teaching questions.
- Do not get too frustrated if you do not see the immediate fruits of your teaching. Teaching is an interactive process and there is not one quick fix for all kinds of teaching situations. Do not be afraid to learn from mistakes.
- Remind yourself every day why you are here and why you enjoy working with students. Reflect on how you learn: how and why do you enjoy learning? It is not so dissimilar for your students.
- Engage with pedagogy literature: it shows that learning is journey not outcome. Do ignore processes that would suggest otherwise. What we should care about is this process and supporting students in this learning process.
- Plan your activities in holistic perspective: encourage students to learn together, but also use your teaching for future research and public engagement. Think about efficient ways to connect your activities as much as possible.
- Be ambitious in what you want your students to learn, but do not get tempted by speed.
- Integrate mid-term reviews for your students: not to have them evaluate the course, but to discuss with them their learning process. Small adjustments in learning behaviour can have big effects, and review half-way (and not at the end!) helps students to experiment and adjust. And it gives them right sense of ownership for their own learning.
- Do not take students’ expectations for granted.
See also on the ECPR website.