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Monday, 29 October 2012

A few more thoughts on contact hours

[Here's another extract from my 2nd-year briefing, which I present for prospective (and indeed current) university students and their parents.  It's a sort of attempt to make a kind of contract between me and my 2nd-years.  So far - though they're a tough crowd - they seem to be working very well in class, so maybe some of it went in, with some of them!  But it follows on from what I've said before about contact hours and how to understand the issue.]

[What I expect of my students]

No, Mr Bond, I expect you to give me
 your take on Book II of Gregory
of Tours' Histories
It’s easy enough for me to say what I expect of you.  In the inverse of what Auric Goldfinger said to James Bond, I don’t expect you to die; I expect you to talk.  In other words to take a full part in the discussion groups.  And I expect you to do the work.  I expect you to engage critically with what I say, not to parrot it or slavishly agree (which would go against everything I’ve just said), but not just to stick your fingers in your ears and say ‘la la la I can’t hear you’ either.  You don’t need to agree with me to get good marks – the highest marks I’ve ever given have been for essays that disagree with me.  I don’t have to be convinced; I just have to think you’ve made a good, solidly-based argument that shows you’ve thought critically about what I’ve said, within the parameters of what can be expected of a second-year undergraduate.  And those are the parameters you’re judged against; not some abstract historical ideal but what you can be expected to know and do in (or after) a one term 2nd-year undergraduate course).


[What my students can expect of me]

That’s what I expect.  What can you expect?  Now as I see it there are certain demands on the part of students which come up again and again.  One is the issue of contact hours; the other is a concern to be taught by the senior, permanent members of staff, the currently-recognised established historians.  I understand both of these concerns, and to some extent I share them.  To take the second one first, I will say – sincerely – that being taught by the established staff-member doesn’t necessarily mean getting the best tuition.  The young grad student might very well have more enthusiasm and newer and better ideas for teaching.  But what we are going to do nevertheless on the course is swap over half way through, so that the two groups taught by [my TA] in the first half of the term will be taught by me in the second half, and vice versa.  Whether you want to see that as ensuring that you all get a turn with the big hot-shot professor or as making sure you aren’t stuck with the old lag for the whole term but get a chance with the sparky young historian too, is entirely up to you!

Now: contact hours.  Like I said, I share your concerns about this, up to a point.  What’s more I share your concerns about value, especially now you have to pay fees – which is an obscenity in my view but then it would be.  But numbers of hours are a crude measure.  You shouldn’t just think in terms of quantity but quality.  You should work to ensure that you get the most out of the small-group contact-hours you get, by being fully prepared, by having done the reading, by being willing to talk in class.  Contact hours can’t just be pushed up and up because we expect you, especially in years two and three, to prepare properly for them, so for each extra hour you get, you’d have to do more preparation.  That’s the bottom line.  The point is not for me to stand up here and tell you what to write, what to think, what you need to say to pass the exam.  I don’t think it’s what you want either, whatever you might think superficially.  If that was all that happened in a History degree, then a BA History wouldn’t be worth the paper it’s written on; in just the same way as people’s attitudes to A-Levels have changed since it became possible just to coach people to the high grades.  There’d be even greater qualification-inflation and even more expense to get them.  So think on.

What’s more if you just wanted to be told what’s what, that would contradict your concerns to be taught by the most renowned and established members of staff.  …  There’s no point in having a top-flight, internationally-respected historian just telling you what to write to pass an exam, for the simple reason that if it were that simple, a first-year PhD student could do that every bit as well.  Come to think of it, a top third-year undergraduate could tell you.  It’d be like having a Ferrari but only using it to drive down to the shops at the end of the street.  It’d be like buying Lionel Messi and using him as a ball boy.  So, if you want your money’s worth then you have to make the most of me lecturing to you on stuff that I know and am actively engaged in, or talking about it with you in class.

There will be tough stuff to grasp on this course.  It will make your head hurt at times.  It makes mine hurt sometimes.  But – and this is the most important thing – I’m here to help you with all that.  Again, if you want your money’s worth – and why wouldn’t you? – you have to make use of what’s available to you.  I’ll be available in my office hours ... and you should come and talk to me; you can e-mail me and ask questions; you can arrange an appointment at another time.  You can just bang on my door.

I’m paid to teach you.  That does not mean lowering the bar and making it all so easy that you can coast through; it means helping you to raise your game so you can get over a higher bar more easily.  Let’s be clear about that.  I’m sure you’ve had this analogy before, but think of University as like an expensive intellectual gym.  If you joined a gym with a world-class athlete as a personal trainer, you’d be mad not to make use of him or her.  But you wouldn’t expect him or her to do the exercises for you, to get fit on your behalf or lose weight for you.  The trainer’s there to help you get fit but you won’t get fit or lose weight without doing the exercises yourself and feeling the pain.  I’m the trainer.

I spent the first 11 years of my career teaching mature students so I’m used to treating my students as adults.  I expect you to behave as responsible adults and therefore to work to make sure you get the best value for money and the best education and to ensure that you get the results you want.  What you can expect of me is, as I just said, to do whatever I can to help you get intellectually into shape to make sure you do yourselves justice.  I hope we have a deal.  If we do, we’ll learn a lot, expand our minds, be able to think better about the world and – I hope – have a bit of a laugh too along the way.  If we don’t you’ll just make me angry and – believe me – you won’t like me when I’m angry.


  1. and another great one. One of these days, what I'd really like is to sit down with you and other colleagues and go over what we think of as good 1st-year , 2nd-year, etc., work. We all seem to be dealing with similar issues, although I expect that your students have a bit more specialized knowledge at the beginning. It would be interesting to see if, and/or where, we are changing our teaching.

  2. Spot on again!

    I was lucky enough to have a very similarly minded professor in my first year. He terrified some students because he expected exactly what you just stated - do the work, be attentive, talk in class, but above all else, just think. I still recall him walking very quickly into the very first lecture, slamming his bag on the desk, and saying in a very stern voice: 'Being a university student is now your full-time job and I'm your boss'. I was hooked. I loved his energy. It meant that I was pushed and more importantly that the other students were pushed, which in turn led to some great seminars. I actually ran into this professor at the IMC last year and asked him about his grande entrance and he told me does the same thing every year to scare away one or two of the dead-end students so that his brighter students had more of his time. I'm not sure if I would go as far as he did but the idea was good.

  3. Thanks, Jason - it reminded me to add the next couple of paragraphs which were very much along those lines!

  4. I really like the gym analogy. A number of we grad students (who hope very much to be thought of as the exciting tutors to have) were discussing analogies for teaching over beers recently and various examples were raised that had been put forward to people over time. There was the boss-worker one, (which I found a bit distasteful: it seems to imply that there is a set end goal that I as 'boss'/tutor want to achieve and I make my 'workers'/students go and do it. It *might* be useful in getting students to think about their non-contact hours as 'work' hours, but I also have my doubts about that...). Then there was the parent/child one, which at least has the benefit of conveying that while as tutors might know more or have more experience than the students, we at least have their interests at heart, are trying to convey guidance, and don't *necessarily* demand that they turn out exactly like us: we are trying to 'raise' an independent human adult. I think the gym one is much more effective though, because it conveys the important factor that students only get out if they put in, despite all the equipment/trainers/protein bars/fancy lycra at their disposal, and it envisages the goal as something they would actually personally desire, rather than sometime imposed. I might just use this in my own next student pep talk! :)

  5. Great stuff again - but the problem with the gym analogy is that if you went to the gym and saw Mariusz Pudzianowski bench-pressing 300k in the corner, you would not immediately feel him to be the most appropriate person to help you learn how to dead-lift a 20k bar without straining your back. You would probably prefer to look for someone who looks less herculean but seems to pretty much know what they are doing. It is not that lecturers (or trainers) need to lower the bar below the expected levels, but isn't it sometimes a danger that students assume lecturers are simply on a different planet? Or that lecturers forget what it is like to be anything other than a 'Champions League' academic?


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