University Teaching

I retired from the University about 10 years ago; last night someone asked me why? I realised that many people have an idealised view of the freedom and even pleasure of lecturing.

Here’s some reality, of how it felt like 10 years ago (it may well be worse now – I’m sure it ain’t better).

Let’s say, a bit ago, you decided, perceptively, that Blockchain technologies were an important topic in Computer Science. So you decided to spend considerable effort informing yourself all about them, and are now a leading researcher in the field. You think the time has come to share this expertise and knowledge with the students at your institution.

So you write a module proposal for the course committee, proposing a module – this will be a fair size document, involving you in considerable work. The course committee looks at it, and decides it is not core Computer Science (there is a lot of competition for core modules), nor does the course need any further, optional, advanced modules.

Oh well. You need to teach something. The second year Databases core module is short of a lecturer: you really don’t know much about Databases, but no one else does either – there are no database researchers in the department. So it may well be that you will be asked or expected to learn another subject such as that, to a deep level, simply and solely to teach it.

However, in your studies of Blockchain, you found yourself needing to learn a lot about cryptography. There is a suggestion that an optional advanced course on Cryptography would be very useful. Not exactly your field, but at least you are up to date in certain aspects of it, and have some interest in it.


Now the real pain starts.

A full module proposal goes in. This will have prerequisites, co-requisites, aims, objectives, details of assessment, and details of what will be taught in each topic of the module. Essentially the whole syllabus. This is for a module in an advanced, fast-moving field that is unlikely to begin in less than 18 months. The proposal goes to the Department course committee for approval (few of whom will know much about Cryptography); then to the Faculty Committee (most of whom know little of Computer Science or Cryptography); then to the University Committee (even fewer of whom know anything of Computer Science or Cryptography). If you are lucky this will all go smoothly, and you may even get some useful suggestions on rare occasions, but if not, there is a whole bunch of work and then you restart the process.

Wahay! You have an agreed task in your work. You can now embark on it.

So what will be the next thing you need to do?

Write the exam paper. Yup. That is what will be demanded from you, long before the module starts. You know that interesting conference you were going to next month where you will be finding out there is an exciting new topic in cryptography? Sorry mate, you won’t have the pleasure of fitting much of that into the module – it isn’t on the exam paper and certainly isn’t in the syllabus. Maybe you can submit a revised syllabus for the following year, but the deadline will probably pass before you can, and it will be two years.

Oh, and any assessments too will be required too.

The exam paper and any assessments will of course have to conform very closely to what the appropriate committee has decided these things should be, probably along with “model answers”, for what should be open-ended questions in an advanced topic. They then go off to an external examiner for comment, who may or may not know anything about Cryptography. And you are well-advised to take action on any comments from them.

I should have mentioned that, before you can do the exam paper, you actually need to study the subject more! You aren’t an expert in cryptography. Although you know about certain aspects of it in great depth, for the subject as a whole, as required for teaching, you need to have a far greater breadth of knowledge than you had. So the request for the exam paper is likely to precipitate a frantic period of study and late nights, while you dig in to all those nooks and crannies that were not relevant to your Blockchain needs.

Finally, the need to actually have the module content ready to deliver becomes pressing, although you may by now have lost all enthusiasm for it, and in fact your research focus may well have moved on in the years since you first started the process. There is an expectation that you will provide notes on all your lectures for the students. You can probably get away with finalising these as you go along, but you will need to do them. Were you thinking you could just go into the lecture theatre and talk to the students excitedly about the material, while those who wished to could take notes? Think again. If you don’t provide detailed lecture notes for them, the students will moan – probably not too badly. But also, you will get pilloried by the multiple Quality Assurance (QA) processes that are coming at you like a speeding train down the line.

Finally(!), you get into the lecture hall, with a bunch of students. You aren’t really teaching what you wanted, nor is it the subject in which you feel the most expertise; but you are going to have the enjoyable contact with a bunch of smart people, who are keen to learn from you.

Of course, it doesn’t always work like that, but if you work at it there is a good chance that you can enjoy the interaction with the perhaps 200 people, many of whom are most concerned to ensure they know exactly what the syllabus is, so they can work out what is in the exam, so that they can get the marks. And you can forget any ideas you were taught in the training about discussing the choice of material with the students – that’s all fixed. But that’s OK. This is what it is all about – you got there.

However, now the rest of the pain starts.

A brief mention: assessment. You will possibly have some coursework to mark. You will certainly have exams to mark. Let’s look at the time on exams. Each student should answer three questions – most do, but maybe not all. So 200 students provide about 500 answers to mark, and remember these are in an advanced topic, which should need some thought, if the questions are any good, and you want to be conscientious. Were you to spend two minutes marking each (including all the mark processing, second marking, moderation, exam boards etc.), that’s 1000 minutes. Compare that with how much time you spent in the classroom! 20 lectures of 50 minutes each. Ah, that’s 1000 too. So just marking the exams can take you as much time as the entire time you spent in classroom contact. Really?

Oh, and timescales. 1000 minutes is over two days marking. The time between a final year exam and the marks being required from you can be a small number of days. However, this will not be the only module you are teaching! And there will be individual and group projects to mark in addition, with viva voces. And you are still doing the rest of your job, managing research projects, supervising postgraduate students, sitting on committees, giving lectures on other courses. And acting as an external examiner at another institution. Double shifts and missing weekends are all in order.

I mentioned QA. Sometimes it feels like university life is nothing but QA.

For teaching: there is QA from the University; QA from the professional bodies; QA from the Government.

In my case we had:

  • University QA – the University would periodically send a team in;
  • BCS (British Computer Society) accreditation – because the courses were accredited by this professional body, a panel would come and crawl all over everything;
  • IET (Institution of Engineering and Technology) – another professional body that does the same;
  • TQA (Teaching Quality Assessment), now the TEF (Teaching Excellence Framework) – the government activity to do something similar to OFSTED, for universities.

Since these visits are on a 3-5 year cycle, barely a year goes by without one of these visits, potentially stressful for all concerned. I recall having three in one year.

Each involves something similar to an OFSTED inspection, I understand. Every module is examined, all the department processes on teaching are reviewed, staff are observed, and students are interviewed. Most of it is about processes, as I recall:- less than 10% of the QA assessment is concerned with actually what happens when lecturers are talking with students.

I think I may have given some sense of why I was happy to retire; while regretting deeply that I get no more contact with smart young people who were often eager to learn from me.

Remember: The whole of this edifice is just for a single module, which constitutes around 20 lectures of 50 mins each. It is likely that each minute of contact time involves more than that in preparation time – remember that this is an advanced module, which is not being taught in this form anywhere else in the world, and you are teaching it for the first time, essentially creating a book of lectures notes to go with it. As discussed, you will have to spend more than twice the lecturing time on non-content, non-contact activities. And that is not to count the time that you spend on those activities in support of others’ modules.

And also note: The teaching activity only represents perhaps a third of your employment duties. Despite all these requirements, and the constant and detailed QA, you will never find yourself deeply valued in the system for excellence in teaching.

The only thing you will be judged on, and will cause career progression, is your research. And that has its own administration, a different, separate QA, etc. etc..

And there is the other third of your duties – administration (and scholarship?), which also has its own, different, separate QA etc..

You may have formed an opinion about whether this system is sensible. Is it delivering the best experience for students? Is their learning time being exploited efficiently? Do they get good value? Is it the best way to spend some public funding? Are universities being nurtured and growing as centres of scholarship for the next millennium? I have only commented on how I see it from a staff point or view.

And I’m well out of it.

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