Stephen Gregg (University of Leeds).
MY use of the other title from Caleb Williams for my own paper is not meant to convey a direct analogy between the experiences of a postgraduate and Godwin's dark tale of a battle between truth and injustice, between oppressed and oppressor. Rather, this paper wants to convey the experiences and impressions of this one postgraduate student as they appear to him now, experiences of postgraduate teaching, of working upon a doctoral thesis, and the impressions of the academic job market. If there are any latent notes of anxiety produced by the association in my title, then that registers some genuine concerns felt by many postgraduate students throughout the country, concerns which are also shared by many in full-time posts. One of the aims of the CCUE panel "English for and with Postgraduate Researchers" was to ascertain the state of postgraduate teaching and studying across the nation in the light of the recent MIA committee report on professional employment. All I can do is present some local knowledge, some local facts, that will sheet some light on "things as they are."
I am a Ph.D. student in rny fourth (and final) year at the University of Leeds, and I have been a postgraduate teaching assistant in the School of English for two of those years, though not continuously. The policy here is that Ph.D. students are not offered any teaching until the first year of research is completed, and then only with the supervisor's recommendation. Further, teaching is only offered one semester per year. However, the department recognises that some Ph.D. students are often glad of the opportunity to teach in both semesters in their fourth year, a year fraught with monetary strains. Postgraduate teaching assistants are offered a small amount of choice over what modules they might want to teach, either a course tying in with research interests, or (more problematic when balancing research and teaching time), something outside their research field. The amount of teaching varies between one and four hours, being typically two or three hours per week. The pay is at the University's standard rate of £I8 per hour per week, with £9 per hour for one "office hour" per week for student consultation. Postgraduate teaching assistants most often teach first-year "introductory" core modules dealing with literary criticism and modern theoretical debates and postgraduate tutors form the bulk of undergraduate contact at this level. More recently, postgraduates have been teaching more historically-based modules at other levels of study.
One of the most pervasive, though subtle, apprehensions facing the postgraduate tutor is a vaguely articulated undergraduate dismay with getting "less than the best." There is a perception that postgraduate tutors are non-specialists, under-qualified, and in every way a far inferior product compared to full-time lecturers, a perception exacerbated by an increasingly consumerist approach to departmental/student relations on the part of students, most recently driven by the changes in student funding. This perception, paradoxically, goes hand-in-hand with an extremely positive reaction from undergraduates taught by postgraduates. In fact, many within English institutions feel that Ph.D. students provide some of the most committed and energetic teaching within a department.
The question then arises, how to bridge this perceptual gap? From the point of view of both undergraduate and postgraduate, an increased awareness of, and attention to, training in teaching strategies would seem to be one answer. University-wide programmes that offer postgraduates structured courses in teaching can be useful. However, precisely because they are not discipline-specific, they can be too vague and are often dominated by physical-sciences approaches to teaching. The result is that such courses are of limited use in providing useful strategies for arts or English seminars and tutorials. Sometimes departments offer in-house instruction. Here at Leeds, the School offers as part of its induction day for all new staff (both postgraduate and full-time lecturers) a half-day workshop on tutorial strategies. Such workshops are perceived (not only here, but at other institutions as well) to be very valuable, most especially in the mix of experienced staff and postgraduates new to teaching. However, various anxieties have been expressed as to how far teaching training can be expanded: the institution of another qualification would lead to the creation of yet another "requirement" for the c.v. and the job market.
With all this comes the recognition by Ph.D. students that
the opportunity to teach is not only a valuable experience, but a necessary
one. For those postgraduates aiming at an academic career, teaching is
just one of the many "requirements'"of those research years. As such, many
postgraduates around the country are becoming increasingly worried about
the possible exploitation of such a situation. Practices such as limiting
when the research student can teach can only be commended, since they recognise
the primacy of research and take into account the student's capacity for
juggling research and teaching - an often difficult act. In light of recent
anxieties over the professionalisation of the English Ph.D., and the resultant
questions that rise over the meaning and status of research in itself
such moves seem to be a requisite safeguard.
Further, if teaching is becoming an integral part of the "Ph.D.-as- training-for-academia," then one of the most recent and notable features of those research years is that they involve a lot more than "original contribution to knowledge." Alongside the thesis is the teaching, the conference papers, organising conferences, and writing for publication. To say that these "requirements" are led by the job market and the pressure to "power-up" one's c.v. is at once to say something obvious, but also to point to something that many Ph.D. students are becoming concerned about. These concerns point in two different directions. Firstly, that many first-year Ph.D. students are still largely unaware of just quite how much else is expected of those research years, unaware of what the academic job market expects from a doctoral graduate. Information, by-and-large, trickles down from postgraduates further on in their degrees. Secondly, these requirements come into conflict with shifts in attitude to a research degree in some institutions. At the University of Leeds, the fourth year of the Ph.D. - traditionally named "the writing up year" - has been renamed "the over-time period." The ideological implications of this shift in nomenclature are difficult to miss. Clearly, for postgraduates, the combination of the pressure to finish in three years and to fulfil all the other various expectations of a good-looking c.v. fuels anxieties over the quality of the research accomplished at this level.
All of which indicates an increasing top-down pressure on postgraduates, and which leads me, finally, to say something of the perception of the English job market from the viewpoint of the postgraduate. The perception is that the postgraduate will not get a permanent job the academic year after submission. The likelihood is that the research graduate's first job will be anything from a visiting lectureship (which may involve substantial travelling), through a part- time lectureship (various point scales, such 0.3, 0.5, 0.75), to a one-or two-year fixed-term contract. Again, first-year Ph.D. students seem unaware of the actual nature of the academic market: such perceptions filter down from third and fourth year students by word of mouth. Together with a lack of information about what might be expected during those three or four years, as I noted earlier, first year students clearly need more briefing.
For this one postgraduate in his fourth year, and having obtained a part-time temporary lectureship, the rest of the year looks set to raise some ambivalent feelings. The experience of myself and colleagues who have gone on past their research degrees and found jobs, suggests the high quality of preparation we have had for the academic job market. However, the ominous portents for the future raise the question that if these are "things as they are," then how will institutions, departments and postgraduates cope with "things as they might be"?
Reproduced with kind permission from CCUE NEWS,
bulletin of the "Council for College and University English" 10 (Winter