PGRs have very different opportunities to teach. Some institutions (or departments) rely on PGRs to deliver teaching but provide limited or no support for their development. Others value and nurture this as a vital career stage, recognising that for those PGRs interested in pursuing an academic career, being immersed in teaching activities is part of the ‘academic apprenticeship’ of the PhD, and that these teaching opportunities will enable their PGRs to enter a competitive academic jobs market in a stronger position. Some may choose not to involve PGRs in teaching at all, citing reasons of teaching quality or exploitation of PGRs (whose primary focus should be on their research).
The discourse around Postgraduates who teach (PGWT*) is also varied- from celebrating and valuing their ‘unique niche’ and ‘key strengths’ (Winstone and Moore, 2017), to referring to them in deficit terms- “you’ll just be getting a PhD teacher for this session”, or “we’re not going to fob you off with a PhD student”. With the backdrop of fees and the pervasive value for money narrative, students too may feel that they are getting something ‘less’ if some of their teaching is delivered by a ‘novice academic’.
Yet there is much evidence to suggest that PGWT bring something valuable to the table. As near-peers, students often perceive them to bring a more personal contact which can impact on retention (Reeves et al 2016) and this ‘relaxed and comfortable interaction’ can play an important role in student learning (Nasser & Fresko, 2018). Their enthusiasm, the fact that they are often adept at guiding students through threshold concepts and their ability to ‘exploit the research-teaching nexus to the maximum’ (Fairbrother, 2012) are also highlighted as strengths.
And what of the PGWT themselves. PGWT can be described as having role conflict (Park & Ramos, 2002) as they negotiate the dual identity – and liminal space – of being both student and teacher. They are often given teaching responsibilities without ongoing support or development, or with little opportunity to experience the full range of teaching and learning activities. Yet Ryan (2015) highlights that “providing students with structured training in the pedagogical fundamentals will not only enhance the GTAs ability to carry out their role as teachers, but it will also improve the undergraduate learning experience”. So how can those who work in development or academic roles best support them?
This Tweetchat will uncover and explore some of these issues. The questions are designed to be responded to by both PGWT and those who support or work with them.
* The term PGWT is used broadly, to describe all doctoral students who teach including PhD students with limited teaching and those on GTA contracts.
Fairbrother, H. (2012) Creating space: Maximising the potential of the Graduate Teaching Assistant role, Teaching in Higher Education, 17:3, 353-358
Nasser-Abu Alhija, F. and Fresko, B. (2018) Graduate teaching assistants: how well do their students think they do? Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, 43:6, 943-954
Park, C. and Ramos, M. (2002) The donkey in the department? Insights into the Graduate Teaching Assistant (GTA) experience in the UK Journal of Graduate Education, 3, 47-53
Reeves, T. D., Marbach-Ad, G., Miller, K. R., Ridgway, J., Gardner, G. E., Schussler, E. E., & Wischusen, E. W. (2016). A conceptual framework for graduate teaching assistant professional development evaluation and research. CBE Life Sciences Education, 15(2)
Ryan, B. (2015) Postgraduate Researchers who Teach: how can national policy and the structured PhD centralise this forgotten tribe and celebrate their skills in tackling some of the current challenges in Irish higher education AISHE-J, 7, 1-13
Winstone, N. and Moore, D. (2017) Sometimes fish, sometimes fowl? Liminality, identity work and identity malleability in graduate teaching assistants Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 54:5, 494-502
Catherine Lillie is a Teaching Enhancement Advisor at the University of Hull. The main focus of her role is developing and delivering teaching and learning support for PGRs and early career academics through a range of accredited and credit-bearing programmes, and non-accredited provision. She is a Senior Fellow of the HEA and is a part-time doctoral student at Lancaster University.
The Wakelet for this chat will be available here.