This week, I visited the University of Salford where I started my first lecturing post more than 25 years ago. Revisiting the lecture hall where I gave my first lecture brought back the jumble of feelings that I experienced as I faced the class to give my first lecture. Fifty minutes seemed like such a long time, how was I going to fill it? Would the class find it interesting? Would they even listen? I was armed with slides and had done my preparation, excited and nervous all at the same time, while trying to convey the impression that I was the all knowing lecturer, expert in the subject.
In recent years, I have worked more with new lecturers at the start of their careers. Sometimes, PhD researchers ask me for advice on becoming a lecturer. Top three tips are below:
1. Look for opportunities and take them.
As a 3rd year undergraduate, I was involved in delivering second year Fortran tutorials at the University of Galway. As a PhD student at the University of Manchester, I was able to build on this experience to facilitate undergraduate presentation sessions. Both of these experiences were helpful in building my confidence and in getting a job as a lecturer. Start early and often, take the opportunities you are given and build on the experience.
Research students may get the opportunity to be a teaching assistant during their studies. Grab this opportunity with both hands! If you are intent on pursuing an academic career the experience is invaluable. If you are undecided, the experience will help you to make up your mind.
2 Put in the Work
Like many other disciplines, teaching is 90 percent perspiration and 10 percent inspiration, not the other way around. Many researchers seek to become lecturers because they want to inspire others but may expect this to come automatically. In reality it takes effort to master the tools and techniques involved in generating the inspiration. Twenty five years ago, lecturing involved writing on transparent slides for the overhead projector (yes really!). Now, there is inevitably PowerPoint and extensive use of learning management systems such as Blackboard. Getting experience with different learning management systems as a teaching assistant is valuable. Take any opportunity offered to work alongside staff already using them. You can learn from their experiences and avoid the pitfalls.
3 Think outside the box
There are many voluntary activities that can help build skills useful as a lecturer. For example, organisations which set out to involve scientists in public engagement. These can help you in developing skills in engaging people, which will help you in engaging students in your lectures.
You could also get involved with your local amateur dramatic society. This can teach you stage presence (commanding your audience), voice projection (reaching the back of the lecture hall), the importance of preparation (rehearse, rehearse, rehearse) and attention to detail (costume and props).
Watch others teaching, what works for them, what does not work? Are there techniques you can use and adapt? Don’t be afraid to develop your own style, we can’t all be Hamlet and it would be very boring if we were.
To be or not to be…. a lecturer, that is the question. When faced with the classroom, you will be glad of the effort that you put into preparation and learning the craft. These days, there is a realisation that the lecturer is not ‘all knowing’ but someone who is further along on the learning journey, signposting the way for others. Not so much ‘being’ as ‘becoming’ an expert and helping others to find their way.
In reality, I was not ‘all knowing’ in my first lecture and years later, I am still learning more about the subjects that I teach. Questions and observations from students have helped me to learn and contribute to the teaching. We all learn together and I appreciate the students and staff who have accompanied me on the learning journey.