On remembering why we teach

As PhDs, we might occasionally take up some teaching. The motivations to do so varies, but there are also some considerations to bear in mind if – and when – we decide to do so while researching. Read Aya Nassar’s experiences in this week’s PhD Life post…

Several PhD students will, at some point, begin teaching while doing their research, and there are a myriad of reasons and motivations of why we take on teaching. It might be the added experience, or the financial support or simply the desire to be in a classroom (or a mix of all three or even more). My personal experience started even before my PhD. I have been teaching extensively in my home country since I finished my first degree. In a sense, the PhD was a good chance for me to take time off teaching and focus on research. Nevertheless, a couple of years in, my research and I found myself signing up for teaching in my department. I wonder why I needed to do that; at the time, I still had my scholarship, and I didn’t need an extra line on my CV since I have been doing this since 2007. I think, in fact, that teaching is genuinely rewarding and intellectually stimulating.

Now this does not mean I really enjoy being in class. I have never been a performer. Being in a classroom (as a tutor, lecturer, and even as a student) is as same as an experience as me walking over a wooden planked bridge over the water. I sometimes suffer from vertigo. Nevertheless, I still I walk on wooden planks, I go into classrooms, holding my breath till it passes. I still walk on bridges though because after the wooden planks there are seas and skies. And I love going to classrooms (knowing that life is assigning me different roles and it might be fun to play, demystify or transgress them), because otherwise how will I get to enjoy everything else the classroom can create?

Teaching is scary especially when you are a researcher because your normal mode is that ‘you do not know’ and that ‘you are learning’ and discovering. In a classroom, you can perform expertise, but I usually also discover my vulnerabilities. Is this how we really pronounce that author’s name? Am I giving an accurate rendition of this topic?

Teaching  is always a risky endeavour, since – especially if you have been trained in political science first – it means risking your mastery . To teach is to disarm yourself, hoping that some much more younger persons will be kind to disarm as well. Then collectively we start to think about questions, essays and projects. I have always loved office hours (when I moved to Warwick University I learned to call them advice and feedback hours!). In the office hours, I get to see the notes, and the people, and the questions and great things happen when you finally see the people you were meant to ‘teach’ earlier. So, the classroom brings the hope for a conversation afterwards, in person, or on paper, out of which something might come into being. When I started teaching in Warwick I had to remind myself all over again, the wisdom of bell hooks:  teaching is not only about empowering students, but also allowing for teachers to grow, unlearn and discover their curiosities anew. We always learn anew how to be inside a classroom.

Beyond the professional development and financial reward reasons, there are a few considerations I would keep in mind if, and when, we decide to teach:

  • Teaching links us more to inhabiting an academic environment in which there are more stakes than what we are aware of in our research.
  • Teaching is emotionally taxing and time consuming. We might have to learn the hard way to protect our different selves, our research time and our roles in the departments that we are temporarily in.
  • The intellectual engagement varies of course, for some it might be too basic to be useful. I have found that covering the undergraduate level material offered one of the quickest ways to remember the broader map of literatures and theoretical traditions of the discipline I am in. This always helps in the final stages of the PhD when you are polishing it for intended audiences and thinking of the significance and contributions of your research to a broad audience.

What are your motivations to teach or not teach while being a PhD student? What other considerations would you share with other PhDs who decide to teach? Tweet us at @ResearchEx, email us at libraryblogs@warwick.ac.uk, or leave a comment below.


Aya Nassar is a PhD student in the department of Politics and International Studies (PAIS), Warwick University. Her research is on cities, space, and the politics of the Middle East. She tweets at @A_M_Nassar.


Image: blackboard-chalkboard-school-2618793 / StockSnap / CC0 1.0

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