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Teaching what you (may not) know


Faced with an increasingly competitive academic jobs market, PGRs are often encouraged to teach alongside their research. At Warwick in any given year, several hundred researchers work across all departments of the university teaching lectures and seminars to undergraduate and masters students. Whilst it can be immensely enjoyable and rewarding, it can also be challenging and stressful in terms of time management, adapting to working with students, and feeling confident about the content. This week, Pierre Botcherby gives us his experiences and advice.

College and university faculty members often find themselves having to teach what they don’t know. They have to get up in front of their classes and explain something that they learned just last week, or two days ago, or, in the worst-case scenario, that same morning over a very hurried breakfast’.

Therese Huston, Teaching What You Don’t Know, (Harvard, 2009), p.2.

This will be a familiar feeling to readers who have taught alongside their PhD. It certainly matches my own experiences of seminar tutoring in History: for two years, I taught on a wide-ranging first-year survey module covering 1750-present. To be expert on such a large timespan would be almost impossible, even for the most experienced scholar. As a researcher whose PhD focused on contemporary British history (well, English history… well, northern English history…), many was the time that I was teaching an unfamiliar topic on the back of the 3 hours preparation my contract afforded per week.

How to square this reality with the wish to deliver good quality seminars to students and the students’ expectation – right, even – of high-quality teaching? If I had attended the module lectures – delivered by subject-specific experts – to improve my general knowledge of these unfamiliar topics, that would have used two-thirds of my prep time, even before looking at the reading or devising activities for the students. Then there’s also the increasing presence in undergraduate modules of ‘skills’ elements, both discipline-specific and transferable, usually within the seminars which take up some prep time, too. [1]

Gradually, I found several solutions to this which allowed me to deliver good quality teaching (enjoyable for both my students and myself) within the boundaries of my contract and without taking time away from my PhD research.

Image Credit: Startup stock photos

Be honest

From the start, I was up-front with my students about not being an expert in every topic. This may seem a strange thing to admit to students, but it helped foster an environment in which it was ok (for me and them) to not know the answer and in which learning went both from teacher-student and student-teacher. I hope that, in the students’ minds, it levelled the perceived hierarchy between ‘teacher’ and ‘student’ to create a better learning environment.

Stick to your contract

A tad jobsworthy, but if you’re being paid 3 hours prep, you shouldn’t do more. I love teaching and would happily have spent all my time teaching but, ultimately, it is an add-on to the thesis, and you can legitimately draw the line regarding your time commitment based on the contract you’re offered.

Breadth over depth

In a History seminar, you’re not so much there to teach students the content (theoretically, their lectures and readings – if they have attended/done them – do this) as to facilitate their engagement with the content. I always preferred a focus on breadth over depth. Recent studies back up this approach, showing that many students today are ‘concrete active’ learners who learn best through engagement and practical application. [2] So, less time analysing the set readings in agonising line-by-line detail, and more time on key concepts and activities which encourage student participation: small group work, mindmaps, ‘paper planes’, short presentations with immediate feedback, essay planning, primary source work… Those of you who teach and have followed the university’s teacher training courses will be familiar with this focus on active learning strategies.


Between the time constraints and the need for engagement, sometimes your approach must be a bit out there. The first time I taught the survey module, midway through Term 2 was a daunting week on Friedrich Nietzsche and Sigmund Freud, designed to stimulate debate around ‘modernism’ and reactions to it. My solution was to use three classical music extracts (covering ‘classical’, ‘romantic’, and ‘modern’ composers) and have the students compare and contrast them. The exercise required no prior knowledge, only for students to say what they heard, facilitating engagement. Recognising the evolutions in musical style over time provided a segue into evolving conceptions of and reactions to modernism, and a discussion of the week’s two key figures.

I don’t hold any of the above to be perfect, to be gospel truth. Each PGR tutor brings their own approach, their own personality, to teaching. Ultimately this is what I think undergraduates appreciate most about their PGR tutors: the personality, the enthusiasm, the engagement. You may well find yourself teaching what you don’t know but you can still, using your experience as a former undergraduate and current researcher, provide students with an experience as engaging and rewarding for you as it is for them.

If you want to read more about teaching as a PGR, have a read of our post on Getting Started as a Graduate Teaching Assistant or take a look at how you can use podcasts in your teaching.

What are your experiences of teaching? Do you have any questions about getting started, or do you have any tips to share? Leave a comment below, tweet us @researchex or email us at libraryblogs@warwick.ac.uk.


[1] Charlie Jeffrey, ‘In defence of the arts and humanities’, WONKHE blog post, 13.04.21 ; Tim Hitchcock, Robert B. Shoemaker, John Tosh, ‘Skills and the structure of the history curriculum’, in: Alan Booth, Paul Hyland (eds.), The Practice of University History Teaching, (Manchester, 2000), pp.51-52, 58-59 ; L. Calder, ‘Uncoverage: towards a signature pedagogy for the history survey’, The Journal of American History, 92:4 (2006), 1358-1370.

[2] Huston, pp.169-172.