In recent years many university departments are employing teaching fellows are they are playing a crucial role in the undergraduate experience. Matt Spokes reflects on what it is to be a teaching fellow:
Trying to come up with a neat definition of what being a teaching fellow involves is, I think, a little tricky; it encompasses a number of different roles so it can be many things rather than just one. Firstly, I see it is a chance for those starting out in academia to get some working experience of the trials and tribulations of life on a day-to-day basis in a busy Sociology department; I began the fellowship as I entered the final phase of writing up my PhD, so in this sense it also represents my transition from student to academic (which is, of course, far from straightforward).
One of the necessary skills required of a teaching fellow is time and workload-management; if, for example, you’re writing-up a PhD thesis then how do you juggle that alongside your seminars, lectures, and administration roles? During my doctorate I held a number of jobs concurrently and I seemed to adapt an already-established rigidity of approach to both my thesis write-up and my teaching, but this still surprised me as I hadn’t realised how disciplined my working processes had become until I started in the role. Having said that, there is always the possibility of something unexpected coming along which means it is still a challenge to balance your time effectively.
The other fundamental aspect of the role – as the title indicates - is teaching, and again this involves a variety of different tasks, practices and expectations. Presently I lecture on, and am the module convener for, the first year Sociology of Crime and Deviance module; as a team-taught module, this requires co-ordinating with a number of members of staff (lecturers and post-graduates who teach) as well as first year undergraduates. This role is different from the work I do with second year undergraduates as a seminar leader and lecturer on the Social Research Methods and Crime, Culture and Social Change modules, so it is important to be able to modify and apply different pedagogical approaches depending on the particular needs of the teaching environment. Alongside this, as I move from finishing my PhD in to academia more fully, I am also working towards completing a couple of publications based on my thesis - as well as sketching out new research projects - and this creates additional considerations in terms of balancing the varied teaching and research schedules spread across the academic year.
Ultimately though, the fellowship enables me to experience the upsides and downsides (relatively speaking) of working in a vibrant and engaging department: it is a great opportunity to gain valuable hands-on experience of the strains and successes of making a contribution to teaching and research in a modern academic institution.