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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more

Postgraduate Diary: Teaching Loads

Thursday, November 13, 2008

As I mentioned in a previous post, I have taken on a lot more teaching this year, having requested it back in those naive days of Summer sun when I assumed I would have submitted my thesis by September. As I said before, the combined load of teaching and research has put me under a lot of strain. However, unexpectedly, some positive things have come out of teaching many different groups across different modules, with a workload which is relatively representative of the normal lecturer's. My experience may well be typical of postgraduates moving from a very restricted teaching role of their PhD years, to more extensive duties post-doctorate. And although I am talking about my experience in an Arts' faculty, I am sure many of the same themes will occur to any new university teacher.

As three of my tutorials are on the introductory modules of the first-year English Literature degree, the main thing I have noticed is that the different modules have ideas and historical contexts which cut across them. So, for example, teaching on the early eighteenth-century novel, Robinson Crusoe, I tried to get my tutorial groups to explore the way in which the fact that Daniel Defoe was a Protestant may have informed his representation of Crusoe's spiritual epiphany on the island. Feeling that God must be punishing him for his youthful arrogance in leaving home, Crusoe reads the signs of a Providential God in the events that happen to him. He also embodies a Protestant work ethic, so that he does not expect to drop to his knees and find his prayers for deliverance being answered; rather, he must work for himself, in the process learning to farm and fabricate the food and tools he needs to survive, discoveries which form much of the novel's plot.

Now as some one who researches postmodern fiction, much of this religious context was comparatively new to me. And I was therefore glad that I gained a mutual insight from my work in teaching the poet, John Donne. Donne was born in 1571 of a Catholic family, in an England where Catholics could expect to be persecuted, totured and arrested. Having seen his brother die in prison for harbouring a Catholic priest, Donne was torn between the religious expectations of his family, and his ambitions to climb the career ladder of the civil service. Eventually, Donne did convert to Protestantism, preaching fierce sermons at St. Paul's Cathedral, and receiving the respect he craved. However, just as Crusoe is repeatedly anxious that God has got it in for him, Donne too is never quite sure of the theological ground he stands on. For Catholics, performing the expected rites is the way to reach closer to God; and what could be a better way to guarantee passage to Heaven than if one has been willing to die for the faith, as Donne's brother did? And what could be less certain than Protestantism, with its salvation through faith alone? How could Donne know how much faith is enough? How could he know that his personal reading of the Bible was done with enough conviction? That there are no guarantees in Protestantism, only questions and doubts, lies at the heart of Donne's poetry, which offers some of the most elegantly tortured verse in the English language.

As you can tell by this brief excursion through the religious detail of English literary history, this postmodernist scholar has got surprisingly engaged with this earlier material, and though it is by no means my usual field, I had the experience over the course of these two authors of conducting what felt like personally original research. Although I have always loved the unpredictable excitement of face-to-face teaching, and the feeling that I am actually doing something productive with my time, I have rarely had that buzz of discovery that I know from my PhD life. That energy, though, did start to flicker in my mind as I researched these general periods and ideas, rather than just particular texts to be taught on a single module.

In a different relationship between teaching and research, my own research into literary theory has, naturally, informed and guided my teaching on the module of that name. For example, whilst lectures on the canon discuss whether Shakespeare could ever be considered "bad" literature in a different culture or period, my own research into cybernetic fiction led me to ask the inverse question of my tutorial groups: can we imagine a time in the future when a computer-generated poem is considered to be "good" literature? And not only has my research helped my teaching here, my research has benefited from some of the esoteric background reading I had to do in order to teach the rest of the syllabus on this module. It is not quite a teach one module, get some research in for free; but the more teaching you do, the more likely it is that you will mutually accrue benefits on both sides of the teaching-research equation.

The other benefit of teaching more groups in more subjects is that I start to see the same faces and to build a relationship with students, rather than having them simply flicker into my life at certain periods, before then fading away again. If I know a student is particularly vocal in one class, but silent in another, I can start to guage where their particular interests and abilities lie. If a student writes one good essay, and one bad one, I can say more usefully specific things about where they need to improve, and where they are already doing well, because I have a relative understanding of how good they are overall.

Finally, and egocentrically, I am better able to evaluate my own teaching. If I have really engaged discussions with five groups for one module, then find the sixth to be comparatively silent and inert, I guess that it is probably not due to the content of the tutorial I have designed, but rather to the idiosyncrasies of the individuals in the sixth group. Conversely, if one group is very vocal in my tutorial for one module, but the same group seems quite quiet in the tutorial for a different module, I figure that either they are not so engaged with the subject matter of the latter, or - more likely - that I need to adapt my teaching style to fit with their predispositions and the ways they are responding to the different material.

So whilst we are all familiar with professorial grumbles about the teaching-research imbalance, it seems to me worth thinking about how more teaching can actually be a bonus, even if it does take up a remarkably disproportionate amount of time. Maybe I am at that naive stage when teaching is still exciting and new enough for me to feel pleasure in it; maybe, after fielding a whole load more emails asking when our next tutorial is or when a certain author died, I will have become a grumpily resentful of the claims on my research time that teaching makes. But hey, at least this arts' teacher can always escape to those desert islands in the mind, like Robinson Crusoe.

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Posted by Alistair at 8:07 pm


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