I:WHY SHOULD POSTGRADUATES TEACH UNDERGRADUATES?
i)The Postgraduates' point of view: experience and finance
ii) The department's point of view
iii)The undergraduates' point of view
II:PROBLEMS CURRENTLY EXPERIENCED BY POSTGRADUATES
i) Getting the opportunity in the first place
ii) Pay and conditions
iii) Relationship with undergraduates
iv) Training III: POSSIBLE IMPROVEMENTS
(Bluffer's Guide to University)
The teaching of undergraduates by postgraduate students is very much a topical subject of debate. The Association of University Teachers has just completed a survey of current practices in Britain, Postgraduate teachers in UK Universities, which is due to be published by the end of November (available from the AUT's press office), and a teaching accreditation scheme is under discussion. With British Academy funding for humanities PhDs becoming harder and harder to win, and with academic teaching loads being increased by financial constraints, getting graduates to do some teaching, at relatively cheap rates, is an obvious way forward. With a view to this, Loughborough, Hull and Keele have already established a formal system of American-style graduate teaching assistantships, whereby a PhD student is paid the equivalent to a grant in return for teaching six hours a week during term time.
Most of us, though, have not experienced such a formal arrangement, from either end. My own position during the session 1994-5 was that of a fourth-year PhD student in the Greek and Latin Department at UCL, my three years of British Academy funding used up. In my second and third years, by badgering the head of department, I had managed to acquire one or two hours a week language teaching in own department, in those days, I was not at all sure of the propriety of such self-promotion, but I knew I needed something to go on my C.V., and nothing had as yet been offered. I then obtained a term's standing in for someone at Birkbeck (for three hours per week) by the time-honoured method of loitering in the Institute of Classical Studies tearoom. That was all good experience, but with the advent of my fourth year, financial considerations became acute, as I had no other source of income. So during the autumn and spring terms `94-5 I taught part-time at Royal Holloway, Birkbeck and Leicester (total 6-10 hours per week). Again, all these jobs came my way through knowing the right people, and being in the right place at the right time. Naturally my views are coloured by my own experience, but talking to other postgraduates, from various universities, I have found everyone very keen to air their views on the subject, most with a good deal of discontent.
The area is badly in need of discussion, with input from both sides. I realise that graduates sat around moaning into their pints (cadged off anyone present with a salary) about how overworked and underpaid they are unlikely to get more than passing sympathy. So, to facilitate constructive discussion, I shall briefly outline firstly the main arguments as to why postgraduates should teach undergraduates--from the various points of view of all concerned and secondly the more common problems currently experienced, in practice, by graduates. Lastly I should like to make one or two suggestions for improving the situation.
Lastly, apart from such immediately practical considerations, teaching is invaluable to postgraduates in the development of communication skills and the broadening of intellectual horizons. Research projects inevitably concentrate on a narrow subject area, in which it is easy to become immersed to the exclusion of all else. Being made to look at broader range of material is not only healthy as a corrective to specialisation, but it often leads to unexpected finds which feed back into the research. Having to explain things clearly to non-experts is of course always a very useful exercise, helping to clarify your ideas and putting more specific studies into their broader context. Returning to the C.V., such experience beyond your immediate area of research is likely to be of considerably more use when it comes to your first academic teaching post than any amount of specialised research. My own thesis topic, on Greek personification cults, is more wide-ranging than most, but I still doubt I shall ever get to teach an entire undergraduate course on the subject.
So, in theory the teaching of undergraduates by postgraduate students is a Good Thing. But what actually happens in practice?
The substantial variation in terms experienced, even within the same institution, is cause for widespread discontent. Methods of payment can be the initial frustration, as personnel departments are not usually geared in favour of casual labour. Often they are unwilling to pay out "small" amounts on a monthly basis, making you wait until the end of term for a lump sum. Then there is the question of different pay for the same work. In my own experience (1994-5),1 have been paid sums varying from £14 to£42 for giving identical seminars at different institutions. Within one institution, I have been astonished to discover that the holding of a doctorate makes the difference between £15 and£30 per hour, quite regardless of how much practical experience the teacher in question has: while I would expect some recognition for the qualification, I find it ludicrous that anyone should be paid double for doing exactly the same work. Conversely, much discontent is aroused by the application of the same rates of pay for very different work. In two departments I have been paid the same rate for a lecture, requiring a whole day's preparation or more, and a seminar, requiring a couple of hours' reading. Such flat rates also fail to take into account the size of a class, which makes a huge difference if any marking is to be done. Language classes suffer especially from this: if paid £15 per contact hour for a class which takes up to two hours to prepare, would you be eager to mark the homework of fourteen students on a regular basis? It might be more complicated administratively, but it would be considerably better for teacher-morale if preparation marking time were more obviously allowed for than it is in the simple flat rate for contact time only. (Essay- and exam-marking usually are paid for separately, but again at widely varying rates.) Talking of administration, this is a "hidden extra" rarely acknowledged. It is tedious even for full-time members of staff to spend hours chasing up non-attenders, writing notes and contacting their tutors, end-of-year reports on individual students or on courses as a whole are further time-consumers, however necessary. When you are being paid by the (contact) hour, and at less-than-generous rates, such extras become more than irritations. The exploitation may be unintentional, but exploitation it certainly appears to be from the receiving (or should I say "non-receiving") end.
i) Preferably. all departments should have an explicit policy. King's College London Classics Department have recently outlined such a policy in their graduate prospectus. It may not be possible to make guarantees, but a statement of intent would be a step in the right direction. Clarification of a department's position on the subject would be helpful for prospective graduate students deciding where to place their applications, as well as for those already within the system. Lack of money is the most frequently cited excuse for a department failing to provide teaching experience. Obviously funding circumstances may make things difficult, but I would argue that more imaginative use of existing resources could be made. After all, fees over £2,000 a year are paid by/on behalf of full-time graduate students even for a humanities research degree, which seems expensive for use of a library and a few hours per term of a supervisor's time. At the current rates of pay, a postgraduate could be given a healthy 40 hours teaching experience for a mere £600-- surely a very small investment for the returns that can be expected.
ii) Some are more natural teachers than others, but all could be helped by a little training. I am not advocating a full-time course, which would be neither practicable nor necessary, but rather training days and on-the-job training. The History Department at UCL, for example, has a formal teaching assistantship scheme whereby a graduate follows the lectures of an undergraduate course and takes responsibility for a seminar group and essay marking under the lecturer's direction. Similarly, at St. Andrews a how-to-teach course is followed up by regular coordination meetings between whoever is in charge of a course and those assisting. Such subject-specific guidance is probably the most economical approach, in terms of both money and time. For the postgraduate student, it combines training with "hands-on" experience; for the department, the input of time spent training could be set against the hours of teaching gained.
In conclusion, at present it is a very precarious business being a postgraduate. Is this state of affairs a necessary rite of passage for the aspiring academic? Some might argue that it is not such a bad thing that you have to be pretty determined to remain in the game, somehow proving that you are not just pursuing academia because you are unable to get any other kind of job. I am one of the fortunate few who now have a "proper", i.e. full-time, job complete with all the trimmings; this is only on a one-year contract, the usual "bottom-of-the-ladder" position, but that is another debate. My recent experience of interviews for such positions has confirmed what I suggested back at Easter in St. Andrews, that employers are as anxious for a track-record in teaching as they are for publications to boost their research rating. My efforts to gain teaching experience have evidently paid off at last, but I am well aware that for many the opportunities have just not been there. Financial constraints upon departments are obviously considerable, but if the matter is taken seriously, things could be considerably improved, even by adopting only a few of the measures suggested. Most graduates I know would be glad of at least recognition and open discussion of the problems.
EMMA J. STAFFORD
UNIVERSITY OF WALES LAMPETER