Dr Tamsin Alexander is a lecturer in the music department at Goldsmiths, University of London. She completed her PhD at the University of Cambridge with a dissertation on the transnational spread of Russian opera in the nineteenth century. In this post, she reflects on her first two years as a lecturer and offers advice to those starting out.
I must have spent at least a week preparing for my first lecture. I visited three different libraries, carried out new research, and spent hours poring over the design of my PowerPoint. In fact, I approached it with all the leisure of a PhD student who has just been asked to cover one lecture by their supervisor. Except, I wasn’t a student – this was a full-time lecturing post. It took a few months for me to realise that this amount of preparation wasn’t sustainable. (It also didn’t necessarily make for the best lectures.) I’m going to share here some of the things I wish I’d been told before I started my first lecturing job.
It was quite a dramatic shift, going straight from PhD student to lecturer. (Bear in mind that, although I’m fortunate enough to be on a permanent contract now, the job I applied for was originally fixed term). For most of us, those three or four postgrad years are spent in relative isolation, investigating the finest details of one narrow research area. Within an hour of handing in my thesis, I hopped on a train to start my lectureship, where I’d enter a strange new world of regular interactions with large groups of people, departmental meetings, and speaking about topics not directly related to my thesis.
As is typical of many lectureships, my role is one third teaching, one third admin, and one third research. In my first year, I taught on eight modules, three of which were my own. This made for a lot of work, as you might imagine. Remember that teaching doesn’t just entail giving lectures. It also means preparing reading lists, coursework assignments, online materials, exam papers, giving seminars and tutorials, general module admin, moderating, and marking. Striking a balance, therefore, is key to survival.
My teaching experience to that point was probably similar to that of many PhD students in the UK. I’d given numerous seminars and tutorials, and had spoken at plenty of conferences. Lecturing is, of course, very different to both, but that’s not to say neither helped prepare me for the job. I was able to build on materials I’d created during my PhD, and having given conference presentations meant I was used to delivering to large groups. Also incredibly useful were the mock syllabi I’d devised when applying for jobs.
So, if your experience is similar to mine, don’t be deterred from applying for lecturing posts. That said, I’d also suggest pushing for lecturing experience during your PhD. If your own department doesn’t offer it, try others, or find out whether your university runs summer schools at which you might be able to give taster lectures. Once you start teaching, you certainly have to learn quickly, but there are ways to make it easier. If your institution supports it, you can take the Postgraduate Certificate in Higher Education, designed to train new lecturers. You can also ask a colleague if they don’t mind you sitting in on one of their lectures, and them sitting in on one of yours, and giving honest feedback.
Part of the reason I spent so long on that first lecture was that I decided to write a full script. Having a script seemed essential at the time: it was what I knew from speaking at conferences, it enabled me to judge how much I could say in the allotted time, and it ensured I wouldn’t leave out any essential information. When it came to the lecture, I stood at the front of the room, propped up my script on a music stand, and abandoned it after the opening paragraph. It felt wrong, reading from the page, and I actually became more confident once I started looking up. Having spent so long preparing it, there was plenty to fill up the 90-minute slot, and I had no trouble remembering what I had to say.
I nevertheless kept working with full scripts well into my second term before realising that 1. They took far too long to write; 2. It wasn’t the best way to engage with students; 3. I wasn’t really even looking at them. Using scripts might work for shorter lectures. Maybe it also works if you’re just coming up with one new set of lectures in a term. Having a script lured me into cramming far too much information into each lecture. I still tend to overfill, partly because I feel compelled to tell students as much as I can, and partly because I’m worried about running under time. I know, however, that there’s only so much a student can digest in 90 minutes. What’s more, the best lectures are always those in which my notes are shortest. There’s nothing worse than realising time is running out, you haven’t reached one of your main points, and you can see the face of the lecturer for the next class peering in at the door and tapping their watch. So don’t feel you have to bombard your students with information (they should be finding out the basics themselves in the reading anyway). And allow lectures to breathe by including plenty of moments for discussion, student presentations, musical examples, and small group work.
Something I’ve really enjoyed about teaching is that it has required me to brush up on old topics, learn new ones and deepen my understanding of my own field. Often the sessions I look forward to most are those in which I’m talking about something new. These are the ones in which I’m most likely to remember that this isn’t like giving a conference paper: the important thing is to present information broadly, to get your audience excited about an unfamiliar topic, and to convey a range of arguments – even those that conflict with your own.
I’ve also loved putting into practice some of the ideas about teaching I had during my PhD. My undergraduate training was relatively traditional, so it’s been eye-opening to see how undergraduates react to approaches that reflect recent changes in research. In my experience, students respond incredibly well to attempts to diversify module content or to step away from composer-based narratives of music history. Even better is when their reactions allow me to think about my own work in new ways. This kind of reciprocal relationship, after all, is what university teaching should be about.
I’ll admit that my first year was tough. There were a lot of sleepless nights, a lot of nerves, a term where I didn’t take a single day off. But, if you are just starting out and this sounds familiar, rest assured that it gets easier. I did have new lectures to give in my second year, but much of what I was doing was a repeat of the previous year. I still spent a significant amount of time updating and revising, but starting with something is so much easier than starting with nothing. And now I’m able to do the things I wanted to in my first year, like holding opera screenings, bringing in guest speakers and getting more involved in the department by attending students’ recitals and supporting my colleagues when they give talks.
Something I hadn’t really thought about when I pictured my life as a lecturer was the amount of admin involved. There was much to learn about my new institution, and I was lucky to have an excellent mentor who responded (and still does respond) to the silliest of questions with patience and care. Admin may sound like a chore, but I’ve found some of my roles to be genuinely interesting and rewarding. Running a research centre, for instance, came under my admin allocation this year. It has enabled me to organise lecture series, plan conferences, start arranging an exhibition, and appoint a PhD student. I’ve also loved being a personal tutor. I have a year group that I’m following through their degree. It can be tough and time-consuming, but I have some really fantastic students; I can’t wait to see them graduate next summer. What’s more, admin doesn’t have to be too arduous if you keep a balance. My advice would be to limit checking emails to a few times a day, or even to keep the first two hours of the day email-free. Admittedly, that’s something I’m still working on.
As is often the case when taking up a lecturing post, it’s tricky to fit in the one third research time. Research does filter into other areas: there are opportunities to explore my own work in lectures and in my activities for the research centre. Getting down to sustained work on new projects has tended to be compressed into holidays. These, though, are often taken up with finishing off reviews and articles looming over from before the start of the previous term, conferences, and, of course, actually taking a break. It’s so important to keep publishing. I’ve managed just about, but something I wish I’d done from the start is to set aside one research day a week, or perhaps two mornings, to maintain my own projects properly during term time. I’d advise any new lecturers to be brave enough to do the same.
You might feel pressure as a young lecturer to prove yourself: to jam-pack every lecture with information, to reply to every email in record time, to say yes to every invitation to speak or publish. It’s probably pointless to try advising anyone to relax a bit – we act like this because we’re passionate about our subject and thrilled to be starting on the path we’ve spent so long working towards. But I would say: resist over-preparing, don’t be afraid to ask for support, and, if you dare, take time to enjoy it.
If you or someone you know would like to write a post for the RMA Student Blog then we’d be happy to hear from you! Please get in touch with one of your student representatives.