Keeping the Faith: Researching as a Part-time Teacher or Teaching Fellow

By M. H. Beals

For many early careerists, the first step up the post-doctorate ladder is working as an associate lecturer or teaching fellow. The precise nature of these posts can vary widely. Some contracts are paid on an hourly basis—literally or virtually including hours for preparation and marking—while others are contracted as a percentage of a full-time equivalent position, or FTE. The latter Is more likely to include a clearly defined number of preparation and administration hours, but, like the former, these may or may not remotely resemble the amount of time you actually spend. Nor can all FTE contracts be considered full-time positions. In recent years, I have seen them range from 0.1 FTE (or a half a day) to 1.0 (or a 35 nominal hours a week) and everything in between. Moreover, as teaching staff, you will only be paid during term-time and usually not more than ten months out of a year.

In the end, whichever arrangement you and your employer reach, a teaching position is just that—teaching. Any research activities you undertake will be done without direct recompense or—in most cases—any form of financial support. If you intend to continue your research, and most certainly intend to do so, choices have to be made about how you spend your time. Many will simply put their research on hold until term breaks while others will forgo those eight daily hours they used to waste on sleep. But while a teaching fellowship can cause bone-shattering exhaustion, it does not need to. There are some choices you can make to keep your research alive, without becoming the walking dead yourself.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I lay before you some honest parameters. My own teaching fellowship took place at the University of Warwick, an institution where I had done some hourly teaching in previous years. My contract ran for ten months, at 1.0 FTE. This resulted in following teaching load:

Autumn Term

  • 4 modules
  • 19 individual lectures
  • 15 weekly seminar groups
  • 180 students
  • 420,000 words marking

Spring-Summer Terms

  • 3 modules
  • 13 individual lectures
  • 12 weekly seminar groups
  • 150 students
  • 1,100,000 words marking (including exams)

I had taught two of these modules previously and two were wholly new to me and required significant redesign. I did not submit any new material for publication during these ten months, but was able to undertake a significant amount of primary research and successfully obtained a permanent position for the following academic year. The following are my five top tips for keeping up with your research during a teaching fellowship. Some of them I learned the hard way.

  1. Schedule research hours, rather than research days.

    This is probably the most important, and most ignored, piece of advice I can give. Everyone has their own particular work pattern. Some are night owls, others larks. Some like to work in short energetic bursts, others in long, deeply reflective stretches. However, as a teaching fellow or part-time lecturer, you will find your schedule continually intruded upon by students, other staff and fellow postdocs. The idea of a research day, where you can shut your door and concentrate your mind completely on the work at hand, will almost certainly remain an unobtainable ideal. Instead, allocate yourself research hours—60 minutes (or even thirty) when you can literally hide from the outside world, and especially your email. These mini-disappearances will give you the space to read, write and contemplate during your working week, but will not be so conspicuous that others will intrude upon them. They will also help you work during social-able hours, rather than relegate your research to late nights or weekends, when your mind is least rested and least able to undertake complicated analysis.

  2. Combine book reviewing and lecture writing.

    I have been told that writing book reviews is a waste of a postdoc’s time, that they do not count as ‘real’ publications but still devour a great deal of precious time. This is certainly true if you read any book that happens to fall into your lap; however, a pro-active career in reviewing can be a profitable one. During my fellowship, I contacted (and was contacted by) a number publishing firms and journals about textbooks and monographs relevant to the modules I was teaching. Some simply offered a free review copy; one granted me book vouchers in return for a more substantial assessment. By reviewing these books, I was not only able to add a small number of entries to my publication list, I was able to amass a small library of recently published monographs (something I was not able to do in my impoverished student-hood), to enrich my understanding of historiography beyond my specialism and, most pragmatically, to quickly and easily develop historiographical overviews for my lectures. Indeed, on at least two occasions a book I reviewed was so well constructed and interesting that I based an entire lecture around it.

  3. Make your lectures formulaic to include research-focused teaching.

    If your teaching fellowship requires a great deal of lecture writing, try to make those lectures as formulaic as possible. First, find a rhythm that works for you and the material; for example, a narrative overview, followed by an analysis of themes, followed by a brief overview of the historiographical debate. Doing this serves a number of purposes. First, work will always fill the time allotted to it. By setting strict guidelines for your lecture—15 minutes on scouring textbooks to develop a cohesive narrative, fifteen from your own experience on the meaning of key themes, and 15 on researching and explaining key authors—you will stop yourself from creating far more material than you can deliver or your students can absorb. Second, students appreciate consistency. The content of your lecture should be engaging, but structural stability will help students assimilate the material week to week. If you are teaching within your field, creating a formula will also allow you a bit of space each week to share your own research, something much enjoyed by students who want to be taught by experts.

  4. Teach your methodology, not just your field.

    In an ideal world, after three to five years of postgraduate research, you will teach modules that directly align to your field. In reality, you may end up teaching modules for which you have little specialist knowledge. In these cases, you may feel the need to read dozens of monographs or to fundamentally reshape the lecture series to resemble your dissertation. The former will completely devour your time, leaving none for continuing your research; the latter will annoy students and colleagues who have hired you to teach the module you were given, not simply your dissertation. One solution is to teach your methodology, not your field. Having spent three years on Scottish migration in the 1800s, I was able to fill my Atlantic World lectures with a deep knowledge of social history methods. Each week I spent 10-15 minutes explaining key vocabulary and concepts, which I knew well, and then explaining how they applied to a broader narrative of sixteenth-century New Spain or seventeenth-century New France. Students gained from my specialist understanding of the methodology, and were able to gain the fine details through their own individual research. This may seem like cheating, but it is not. Having spent the first six lectures attempting to drown my students in specialist detail throughout the lecture, I realised they gained much more from a moderated flow than a flood.

  5. Finally, remember your contract hours.

    Whether you work for an hourly wage, or as part of a fractional contract, you are expected to complete your work within a particular time-frame. As many academics, especially postdocs, are committed to ‘doing their best’, this often results in 40- or 80-hour weeks rather than the 35 they are actually contracted for. Although you are and should be expected to competently perform the duties for which you were hired, it would be exploitative to implicitly demand you to work twice or three times your paid hours. As I said before, work will always fill the time allotted to it. Work hard, but also work smartly. If you genuinely cannot write a good lecture, plan your seminars and mark your essays within your contract hours, you should stand up for your rights and demand either additional pay or a more reasonable workload. You’d be surprised how concerned your permanent colleagues are about the casualisation of teaching and will help you in your quest. Moreover, if you are on a term-time contract, do not spend unpaid months preparing for your teaching. If you devote both your paid and unpaid time to teaching, you will never find time to research. There are simply not enough hours in the day.

In the end, I gained a great deal from my teaching fellowship—from my students and my (very supportive) colleagues—but it was also exhausting. Perhaps if I had followed my own advice a bit more closely from the start, I might have slept a bit better, or, at least, a bit more often.

About the Author

M. H. Beals is a Senior Lecturer in History at Sheffield Hallam University. She has published on Scottish Diaspora, and the continuing role of sending communities in the migration process, including her recent monograph Coin, Kirk, Class and Kin: Emigration, Social Change and Identity in Southern Scotland. She is currently researching the role of pre-Victorian newspapers networks in the development of imperial identity, as well as the role of digital methodologies in media history. She tweets as @mhbeals and is happy to speak with any current fellows seeking advice, or commiseration.

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One thought on “Keeping the Faith: Researching as a Part-time Teacher or Teaching Fellow

  1. Pingback: Reflections and Resolutions of an Independent Scholar

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