Postgraduate Research Students and Teaching: Departments of English Language and Literature

Postgraduate studies

1. Context

Increasingly, English Departments are using postgraduate research students in the teaching of undergraduates, and the main factors driving this development are the RAE on the one hand, and the increasing demands for teaching from postgraduates on the other. In many departments RAE strategies have focussed around the provision of extended periods of research leave for staff to enable publications to be completed quickly to deadlines imposed by the assessment calendar, and this leaves areas of the curriculum short of teaching expertise, and potential gaps in the undergraduate experience. Departments have responded by making greater use of postgraduates whose expertise is known to their supervisors. Departments have discovered postgraduates to be a flexible resource in this respect. It is also the case that the doctorate is regarded by many postgraduates as an apprenticeship leading to an academic post, and it has become a common expectation that those applying for their first teaching posts will have some experience of teaching. Hence there is pressure from postgraduates for their departments to provide them with such experience.

2. Issues

The main issues here, obviously, circulate around the balance of the workload. Supervisors will be concerned that the high levels of preparation required for teaching should not disturb the schedule for completion of the research. Alongside this, Departments are aware that the AHRB closely monitors completion rates in institutions where their award holders are registered (a number of prestigious institutions have fallen the wrong side of this auditing, with damaging effects). There is a well-founded concern, therefore, that the amount of teaching taken on should be within reasonable limits. In addition, there are further responsibilities for the Department in ensuring that the quality of the provision is high: the postgraduate teacher must be up to the task. This has been a massive issue recently in the United States, where high status institutions have found themselves awkwardly defending a practice of using GTAs (Graduate Teaching Assistants) against public opinion, which demands that students should be taught by prestigious professors and a fully professionalised staff. In State funded universities, such pressure has been even greater. The ‘professionalisation’ of teaching (and research) has loomed large in academic life in the States, and this has led to a continuous debate about such matters as GTAs (Graduate Teaching Assistants), induction to teaching etc., largely conducted through the auspices of MLA, and to be found in recent issues of the annual MLA publication Profession. While the situation in the UK is not yet so pressurised, there is evidence of some localised concerns about the proportions of undergraduate teaching being allocated to part-timers and postgraduates.

3. Practice

It is now common to find postgraduate students carrying a considerable proportion of the total teaching load in English Departments with a strong research focus. It is not unusual, for example, for such departments to have all, or almost all, the first year seminar teaching undertaken by postgraduates, and for students to have in excess of 50% of their seminar experience in the first two years with postgraduate tutors. In some instances, postgraduates provide a proportion of the lectures. In almost all cases they have responsibilities for assessment.

The main features of this practice are as follows:

  • Research students are not offered teaching until their second year of full-time study
  • Such teaching is usually limited. The calculation of that limit is sometimes set centrally, by the institution, and a common maximum would be three hours per week
  • There is some induction to teaching, provided centrally, or by the department, or by a combination of both

While I don’t think we have enough information on this to be absolutely sure about ‘good practice’, some Departments are working hard at providing more than a minimum level of support for their students. These would include such features as the following:

  • The calculation of the amount of teaching offered to the student is a matter for the Head of Department and the Supervisor to discuss
  • The teaching itself comprises seminars/tutorials only in the first instance
  • The Department itself takes some responsibility for assuring that the student receives subject-specific induction to the teaching role
  • Some centralised training will also be provided (usually by a staff development unit)
  • The Department runs a mentoring scheme. This may not be heavily formalised, but makes provision for regular meetings. In some Departments a single tutor takes on this role, and it may well include observation of teaching. Clearly this has to be done in a sensitive way.
  • Where a marking responsibility is taken on, this is monitored at a level in excess of the regular monitoring norms (research students can often find themselves exposed or under pressure without such back up, particularly in continuous assessment schemes)
  • Postgraduate teaching is paid at agreed (i.e. union agreed) rates

4. Other developments

The advent of mandatory training for new lecturers entering the profession is leading to a lot of change in this area. A four-year doctorate, with taught elements, is currently being piloted in the UK, and there has been some speculation about whether such schemes should expand to include some ‘teacher training’ elements. Training for postgraduates in teaching may also carry a credit bearing value, which can subsequently reduce the mandatory training requirement on appointment to a first post. Some Departments, rather than accept the training offered by their central units (usually ILT accredited), are opting for the training course provided by the Open University, a scheme that may well be amenable to early adoption by postgraduate research students, provided, again, that it can be kept to a reasonable scale.

Note: This paper collects together some materials and information currently available to the Subject Centre. It does not constitute a set of recommendations. As yet there is insufficient recorded evidence of the effectiveness of the practices noted here. The variations in institutional structures and provision for undergraduate teaching also need to be acknowledged.

Philip Martin
English Subject Centre 5/2/02