Thoughts on teaching


final exam by dcJohn via Flickr

For the past few weeks I have been working as a tutor to the first year Journalism students at Murdoch University here in Perth. For the elucidation of those based in other countries, students go to a lecture here given by the lecturer on the theory of a subject and then break off into smaller groups of around twenty to attend tutorials or workshops where they learn the details of the theory or the practical versions of the subject via exercises and assignments. Tutorials and workshops are run by the tutors.

Sometimes the tutor and the lecturer are one and the same person, more often than not they are different. Any entry level course for a degree here generally has about 100 students and one lecturer can’t take on five to six different tutorials or mark three lots of 100 assignments by themselves. The Introduction to Journalism course at Murdoch currently has around 100 students enrolled in it – I remember the Introduction to Philosophy course at Notre Dame had 300 when I was there.

I started with about 43 of those 100 students at the start of this semester. Some have withdrawn so the number is now between 37 to 40 or so. I take two out of the five or six tutorials and I am responsible for marking three sets of assignments (two news stories and a feature piece), giving them a weekly quiz and ramming the basics of journalism practice into their head till they get it right whether they like it or not.

I can’t help but like all of them, even the annoying ones and I am gratified to say that they are sticklers because even though quite a few got rather low marks on their first assignments they seem determined to keep going. In a funny way, every time they improve, every time they get a better mark and every time they say something intelligent, I feel proud.

Perhaps this is a good thing because I do want them to pass and do better even if they never end up being journalists. Perhaps it’s a bad thing because I then feel miserable when they do fail. Maybe I am too attached, I don’t know.

But most of my family has been involved in teaching – they find it rewarding. Quite a few relatives are professors and they have been bugging me to be one for ages and despite making them happy by taking on a Masters thesis they can’t seem to understand why I don’t want to end up as an academic in a university setting at the moment.  I don’t know any of my teaching relatives who don’t have a vested interest in their students at whatever level they teach at. I think you have to be interested because if you can’t pick up on what a student is like, you can’t then always make what you have to say interesting to them.

It’s one of those things like writing – a lot of people tell me that I am a good teacher as well. I have done my share of teaching before – I have taught English to non-native speakers, I have taught dancing to children and writing to others. Once I even taught one of my friends about how different hominid species evolved over time using four candles that were lying around at the time. It sounds crazy but it worked. When one hominid species took over another, one candle simply knocked another out of the way.

It’s funny to see how the two tutorials differ too. There is one in the morning and one in the afternoon on the same day and in the first, everyone is a bit lethargic and I am always wondering if I should recommend a mandatory coffee session or not. In the second, everyone is in that very awesome state where they have just eaten lunch and are just about to fall asleep in a cosy afternoon nap and so all their defenses are down. The lunch may also explain why they are all so hyper. The second class is a riot and more fun and informal – they joke around but they also pay attention.

I also find that you can ensure that you do not take yourself too seriously and also command respect. The students can talk to me, they can joke with me and ask me questions and they are generally free to dislike me if they choose to as well but they have to pay attention when I want them to in class.

It is tiring though. Every Thursday evening I find myself exhausted and I wonder if this is normal or is just due to everything else I have tossed myself into at the moment as well. I seem to be eternally marking quizzes or assignments. While I could make them mark their own quizzes, some of them are too eager to use any loophole to gain an extra mark and while I encourage that sort of thinking for when they interview someone, I do not encourage it for when they need to answer a quiz about what they should have been following on the news that week.

And I like it when they are keen – not just on finding out how to do better in class but on following their own ideas. One of them chats to me before the tutorial starts while we wait for the room to be free and updates me on what he is doing for the specific degree he is taking and what he has been following. Another one wanted to meet me so I could explain things to her and she could do better on her next assignment but she also proceeded to grill me on all things journalism and while she isn’t sure what she will end up doing, she at least now has a lot of information that may help with her decision and she knows what to do for her next assignment.  When those things happen it is rewarding. I’ve made it clear several times that they can ask me if they get stuck or lost or confused or are just curious about something else to do with journalism but not all of them ask and not all of them are interested.

I think some have to work up the courage as well. Not just to ask me but for other things as well:

Me: “You have to ask the lecturer if you want to make sure she is okay with you covering this story within this timeframe.”
Student: “I emailed her.”
Me: “Did she reply?”
Student: “No.” [Is petrified that she won’t get the permission for the story and is therefore putting it off]
Me: “Have you called her?”
Student: “Um, no.”
Me: “This should have been done weeks ago.”
Student: “I emailed her but she didn’t reply.”
Me: “She has 100 students asking her questions. She won’t be able to answer all her emails immediately. Call her.” [Much encouragement from the rest of the class to call her, all of whom are highly bemused by this exchange. The student sitting next to her finds the number for her and even offers to dial it for her.]
Student: “I don’t like calling people – I’ll call her later.”
Me: “No one likes cold calling people – call her now so I can say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to correcting it when it comes in and we can get on with things.”
Student: “What if she is busy?”
Me: “You won’t know till you call her. For the sake of all things holy, hon, are you not a grown woman?”
Student: “I’m only 19!” [Cue for everyone to burst out laughing.] “What?”
Me: “If you’re over 18, you are an adult, come on, call her now or you won’t be able to get started on it and I will have no choice but to fail you.” [Student next to her has dialled the number and handed the phone to her so eventually we get the permission and class can go ahead.]
Student: Wait, what’s her name?
Me: She is your lecturer. This is week nine, how can you NOT know her name by now?

Sometimes, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry or swear really loudly but at least I am not bored.

Not when you ask a question on the quiz such as “What did archaeologists discover this week in England under a carpark on the site of a former priory or church?”

It was a skeleton that may be that of a former monarch pending DNA analysis but one of the answers I got back on the quiz was…



  • Author Ashley Howland

    It really does make you re think sometimes. My personal favourite answer came from a year 7, after working on friction for weeks the answer he gave me to the quiz question: Why do sufers wax their boards: Because sharks don’t the taste!!! Weeks of work wasted, still you have to laugh. Now that I work at Labs ‘n Life I get lots of material, it is certainly never boring!

    • Marisa

      Most of my students put down answers that they find funny when they don’t know the answer to a question. 🙂 I wouldn’t say they were daft, just not up to date on what’s going on. So they go for broke and make the most hilarious guesses hoping I will give them marks for creativity. They get brownie points for making me laugh but not actual marks. 🙂

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