One Year In – Reflections of a new Course Leader

I didn’t think I was that short… celebrating with some of the Class of 2018 BSc Digital Media

It is hard to deny that life in contemporary universities has become a frenzy of standards, benchmarks and efficiency. A place where staff and students are encouraged to be beyond excellent continuously. All because someone somewhere decided that Education is a business product. The commercialisation/corporatisation of universities has caused us all to be so hurried and harried, striving for more time to get everything on the to-do list completed.  So how on earth does a new lecturer, let alone a new course leader cope in this academic climate?

I have been in post for just over a year and have only now managed to take a breath and start to reflect on my achievements, my crushing defeats and my ambitions for the future.

The one piece of advice I was given by the outgoing head of department at the School of Creative Technologies was: “Survive”.  I think I have survived, but I definitely have some spectacular war wounds.

This post is an attempt to reflect on launching myself into a challenging post where expectations are high and the potential to fail is just as great.   I knew my first year as a full-time lecturer was going to be challenging, particularly in the current climate, but I did not quite appreciate just how demanding Course Leadership was going to be.

Here are 10 things I have learnt about the job and myself over the past year.

Firstly a bit of Background experience

I joined the School of Creative Technologies at the University of Portsmouth as a User Experience Teaching Fellow in February 2017. The department was going through a time of flux and by July I was installed as a Lecturer and Course Leader for the BSc Digital Media degree programme. This was my first teaching appointment after years of Research posts, PhD and Post Doc (at UCL and Durham). During my research career, I was fortunate to gain some teaching experience from delivering guest lectures, seminars and practical sessions, but had no real experience of dealing with students day in and day out. What I lacked in knowledge I made up for with enthusiasm, but it is fair to say I faced a steep learning curve!

During the 2017/18 academic year, I taught on 8 modules, two of which I acted as coordinator. Teaching ranged from lectures to over 200 students, to small-scale seminars and very regular computer practicals.

Lessons Learnt

1. You will over prepare for teaching and still feel like you are not doing enough.

I like being prepared. It is a safety net. But once term starts and chaos ensues you often feel like you’re just one step ahead of your students in terms of content. I have high expectations of my students, and of myself. I tried to over-prepare lectures, because the thing I am (and let’s face it most of us are) afraid of is feeling incompetent in front of other people.  Teaching prep can be a way of trying to control the chaos, but the problem with this is that there are numerous and varied demands on your time, and you can get lost in teaching preparation, but unfortunately you need to crack on with all the other aspects of the job, all the other responsibilities you have to deal with. Learning to give yourself a fixed amount of time to prepare (which is always more than the workload planning model states) is important and try your very best to stick to it.

2. Imposter Syndrome never leaves you

You will always feel like a fraud. Learn to embrace it.

3. Supervising student dissertations is a joy. 

I found 1 to 1 supervisions with students an absolute joy. Seeing students grow, mature and think critically about research is very exciting. Encouraging students to think a little bit more, to challenge them, to share the highs and to offer support during the lows is a highly rewarding experience.

4. Plate spinning is an art form

Course leadership is stressful. It can often feel like you are firefighting.  There is a continuous list of obligations that you need to fulfil on a daily basis, and this is on top of the ever-expanding lecturer duties.  The number and variety of tasks for which you are responsible are overwhelming, and this is exacerbated by the fact that you are held accountable by multiple stakeholders with frequent last-minute deadlines.  Expect to be overwhelmed and be prepared to adapt to shifting demands. It is a challenge to learn which plates you can leave to their own devices for a while, and which you have to keep spinning at pace. One of the biggest things I have learnt this year is that this job is unpredictable.  It is difficult to understand that your work will very rarely go according to plan. It is a slightly unhealthy balance between reactionary and pro-active.

5. It is important to admit your faults and turn your weaknesses into strengths.

I am an introvert, a shy academic and a nervous teacher. This might seem odd to the friends, colleagues and students who know me.  But I work hard to keep up appearances, and when in lecture mode I am an amplified, stereotype of my quiet, cautious self.  I very much enjoyed reading Shrinking Violets: The Secret Life of Shyness, by fellow shy academic Joe Moran.  This book really helped to realise that this perceived ‘weakness’ is actually a strength.

6. You care, sometimes too much

Students are opinionated and have no qualms about telling you what they think and expect.  As a lecturer and Course Leader, you are vulnerable to indifference, judgement, ridicule, banter and even praise.   The majority of the time working with students is delightful.  They can be absolutely hilarious. I found the indifference the worst aspect to deal with, and at the start of the year I didn’t have a handle on the students, and they didn’t know how to deal with me.  I found it quite frustrating to the point where I was upsetting myself. Transparency and brutal honesty have been a big help.  Providing students with some blunt homes truths really changed our relationship. Proper one to one discussions with students are vital. Each and every one of my students matter.  Taking the time to get to know them has been really rewarding.  I think it is important to listen and act accordingly.  Creating an environment where students feel comfortable is important.  Having a personal relationship with each student, helps me as much as it helps the students.  I try to be student centred and actively present.

But caring can sometimes lead to defeat. As I write this, the NSS (National Student Survey) scores have just come in… No improvement on last year’s metrics. I am livid.  Learning to let go is not in my skill set yet.  The advice a very good friend gave whilst I was an undergraduate was to ‘bend like a reed in the wind, dude’.  I still have not mastered this.  But it is a work in progress.

7. You will feel heart soaring pride when students exceed expectations

Student success is brilliant.  When students fulfil and exceed what they thought they were capable of, it is wonderful. I was not adequately prepared for just how proud I was going to be.

8. The student experience is, and should be the priority.

Despite the focus on quantitative metrics of success (many of which are pretty meaningless), student experience should be your priority as a Course Leader. I am incredibly disappointed that university marketisation is diluting the student experience and decimating any opportunity to create a culture of student consultation and a fully co-created curriculum.

9. You will feel undervalued

There are times where you feel that no matter how much effort you have put in that no one has noticed. There may be circumstances beyond your control which cause you to feel unappreciated.  Hard work sometimes goes unrecognised. But the people who matter, your students and your colleagues, they notice and they value your input.

10. Do not give up hope.

There will be things you want to change. Nothing is perfect. Try to stay focused on the opportunities and the potential, rather than challenges that can have a negative impact.  Departmental (and institutional) cultures can change. Push back when necessary. Do not let your standards slip.  There are subcultures of support creating pockets of resistance to the commercialisation. Find your pocket.

10 lessons does feel like a lot. And that’s not even all of it. It is just the elements that I feel most passionate about. There is a lot of information and advice out there for new lecturers, ultimately each of us has to find our own path.

The last year has been a challenging, frustrating, exciting, rewarding and an exhausting experience.  I do feel like it could have been a bit of a smoother ride, but I would not have changed it. My job is exhilarating.  I hope to continue to evolve and grow as a lecturer and as a course leader and to hopefully to remember to listen to my own advice.

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