Emma Stafford

i)The Postgraduates' point of view: experience and finance
ii) The department's point of view
iii)The undergraduates' point of view
i) Getting the opportunity in the first place
ii) Pay and conditions
iii) Relationship with undergraduates

Know Your Tutor: The Whizzkid Graduate

30ish but looks seventeen. They will give you four-hour tutorials at eight in the morning. They mark your essays assiduously, find all the mistakes, make you feel like you know nothing, and never miss a tutorial. They know everything about their own narrow subject.

(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.


i) The Postgraduates' point of view: experience and finance

Firstly, for anyone aiming to pursue an academic career there is an obvious need for experience. Job application forms all seem to have a large space to be filled in with "teaching experience". This of course fits with the general trend in the job market, that all must have experience as well as qualifications, and one cannot blame employers for preferring the tried and tested to a relatively unknown quantity. Secondly, there is the matter of finance. The current funding situation for humanities postgraduates is hardly encouraging: even if you are one of the lucky few who obtains British Academy funding, the grant is barely sufficient in areas which have a high cost of living, such as London and Oxford. In my second year, 1992-3, the basic grant, including London weighting. was £6,115 p.a., out of which £3,150 had to be spent on rent and household bills, and £792 on daily travel, leaving just £1,173 to cover such frivolities as food, clothes, books, etc. - ie £22.56 a week. Would that the best Classics research libraries were located somewhere cheaper. Some supplementary income, then, is bound to be necessary even during the three years of funding. That a fourth year seems almost universally to be required for the completion of a humanities PhD thesis is due at least in part to the conflicting demands already made upon the student's time by her need for teaching experience and for money. Whether the thesis-writing process can should be speeded up by doing a preliminary MA, in order to acquire research skills and a more focused approach to a special field of study, is a question for another paper. I mention it here because the main reason I did not do an MA myself was that I doubted I would get funding for more than a total of three years, and knew I would need all of that time for a PhD.

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.

ii) The department's point of view

Postgraduates are a ready-to-hand source of relatively cheap labour. With an increasingly high ratio of students to full-time staff, some assistance is needed by most departments. Obvious candidates for teaching by graduates are the seminar/discussion groups into which the students on a larger course are often divided, or smaller language classes, reducing the amount of repetition in any one member of staff's teaching load. At a social level, contact between graduate and undergraduate students is important for integration within a department, especially if the majority of graduates are not "home grown". In the longer term, any department should be interested in the employment prospects of its postgraduate students, as their success will of course reflect well on the parent institution.

iii) The undergraduates' point of view

To the average eighteen- to twenty-year-old undergraduate, postgraduates may well seem more accessible than older/more established members of staff. Postgraduates may conceivably be able actually to remember the trauma of sitting exams, they still have supervisors of their own to complain about, and have not yet attained a qualification to prove that they are ridiculously clever. In my own experience, I have found undergraduates happy to ask me "stupid" questions which they said they were afraid to ask the presumably more awe-inspiring members of staff. Several have also been very interested to find out from "the horse's mouth" more about what further study would entail, an interest surely to be encouraged if we want our subject to continue to flourish.

So, in theory the teaching of undergraduates by postgraduate students is a Good Thing. But what actually happens in practice?


i) Getting the opportunity in the first place

How many postgraduates want teaching experience, and how many actually get it? In very few cases is teaching offered to postgraduates by a department as a matter of course; most have to ask for it, and too often have to kick up a fuss before it is forthcoming. Departments usually plead lack of money as an excuse (reasonable, though unhelpful), but I have heard of a case where the head of department claimed to be against postgraduates teaching on principle (he was not willing able to explain why). Different systems provide varying degrees of resistance to the gaining of experience, and the divide between Oxbridge and the rest of the country is particularly apparent here. The Oxbridge supervision tutorial system is very different from the class-teaching situation prevalent elsewhere. With the best will in the world, an Oxbridge postgraduate is unlikely to gain experience of anything other than one-to-one discussion of a student's essays. With recent relaxation of language requirements for entrance at Oxford, a few places are now available to postgraduates for teaching beginners' language classes, but very few compared to the numbers competing for the dubious privilege. Oxbridge postgraduates are perhaps compensated for this lack of available class-teaching experience in the initial getting of a job by the Oxbridge bias in job appointments, emphasised in Susanna's paper, but they will hardly be prepared for what a job anywhere else in the country entails.

ii) Pay and conditions

"... thank God that you've got even that half in return for sitting from early dawn in a cell that no tradesman, no workman would tolerate. Be thankful, I say, that you earned as much as a halfpenny for your grimy labours..." The question of pay and conditions for teachers of all varieties comes up with monotonous regularity; Juvenal's satire on the plight of the grammaticus (7.215 ff) is all too recognisable. I shall confine myself to a few points which, while more widely relevant, are of particularly immediate interest to postgraduates operating on a tight budget.

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.

iii) Relationship with undergraduates

Although postgraduates may be psychologically more accessible than members of staff, this is not the case physically. Administration is particularly difficult if you do not have an office in the department, and you may not even have a pigeon-hole of your own where students can hand in work. At best several postgraduates will share one office, making it an unsuitable venue for seeing students individually. In three years of peripatetic teaching I have had occasional recourse to teaching in a Students' Union cafe and the gardens of Gordon Square, and have never been able to reassure a student "You can always find me in..." Lack of a good base can contribute at a less tangible level to the feeling that you are not a "proper" teacher. What do undergraduates think of their postgraduate teachers? I dared to ask one of my own classes for their opinions, and was surprised to find that most had not given the matter any thought at all. On the whole, the verdict seemed to be that they were happy to be taught by a postgraduate for first-year courses, but would expect someone more senior for more advanced courses. One mature student hit the nail on the head: ~In the end it all comes down to whether you sound like you know what you're talking about."

iv) Training

Or should I say, lack of... People outside academe find it extraordinary that no formal training is required of teachers in tertiary education. You would not expect your child to be taught by an unqualified junior or senior-school teacher (even public schools are less keen to take on recent graduates with no PGCE these days), so why should you be content to have your teenager's further education in the hands of people whose only training is in research rather than teaching? It is a commonplace that being a good academic and a good teacher are not the same thing. And from the potential postgraduate teacher' s point of view, it is pretty terrifying to be thrown in the deep end, more especially if, as in my experience at Birbeck, the students are all old enough to be your parents. But what is most people's experience of training? At Royal Holloway I was offered one afternoon on "small group teaching", which turned out to be of more relevance to the Geographers running it than to me. It was at least a start, but it was never followed up. By then, anyway, I had already been doing a little teaching for two years, and this seems to be the general case: too little, too late.


Obviously not every postgraduate student needs or wants teaching experience. Not all intend to pursue academic career. Some may need to concentrate on finishing thesis as quickly as possible for financial reasons, especially if they are foreign nationals, only here for a strictly limited period. But for the rest of us it is indispensable, and should at the very least be borne in mind by all concerned.

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.



CUCD Bulletin 24 (1995)
© Emma J. Stafford 1995

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