Working with Undergraduates: Why it Keeps Me Sane

Sunday, 9 July 2017 5-minute read

Older PhD students and graduates and graduates have often told me that teaching kept them sane. This is an opportunity that I will only get in my third year, and while I understand why my department chooses to run its doctoral programmes this way, because of these accounts from these other students I sometimes feel disappointed that I will come into this late. Nevertheless, it gives me something to look forward to. In the meantime, I work with undergraduate students in capacities which, though not officially teaching roles, have involved a fair bit of training and engagement, and I can perhaps understand why many students feel this way about teaching.

Over the last year, I helped with the undergraduate literature conference that my department organises. This last week, I ran a training workshop on conference skills and etiquette and on peer reviewing for students from across the UK who were interested in attending the conference next year. This conference is organised, run and peer reviewed entirely by undergraduate students, and PhD students like myself are there to advise the undergraduates on how to run a conference. This is, of course, entirely voluntary: it is not part of any contracted teaching, nor is it something for which my time invested is compensated. Still, I am happy to help with this for now because, to some extent, I feel a sense of ownership as I was one of the alumni of the conference. My experience in presenting at this conference influenced my decision in pursuing postgraduate study, as I am guessing the skills I honed at it held me in good stead throughout my successive degrees. I was also one of the authors of the grant proposal, and was involved in setting it up. In some ways, I feel my involvement with the conference is me giving back to it what I gained from the talented PhD students whom I worked with in the past (my sincerest thanks to Charity McAdams, Brian Wall and Nick Spengler).

But more importantly, this is the kind of work that I enjoy. My role has often involved facilitating training workshops for undergraduate students on things like peer reviewing and presenting papers at conferences. And although this is not officially tutoring, I can see why many of my doctoral colleagues enjoy teaching so much. At the very least, the contact with other people and the routine break the drudgery of staring in to the abyss of a blank Word document every day. It also helps that the students involved are usually dedicated and engaged, with an enthusiasm for the subject and their studies and an idealism about academia that are refreshing for someone who might lose this perspective because of how excruciating the intellectual labour of a doctorate is. And perhaps because the audience for an undergraduate academic conference is a small, self-selecting niche of students who are dedicated to their work and are seriously considering postgraduate study, the participants are always willing to rise to any new intellectual challenge. The resulting quality of work and the talent on display are astonishing, and I am not alone in appreciating the level of sophistication and rigour in their work as these students train their critical faculties develop their own voice within scholarship.

My work with the conference has involved running training workshops to share the skills that I have picked up in my years of postgraduate study. The rewards of this kind of work are more immediate and tangible, and compared to the isolated and often slow labour of writing a thesis. Unlike a large-scale research project — whose parameters keep changing over time, and progress in which is often slow and difficult to measure — ‘teaching’, construed in the broadest sense, has much clearer measures of success, and success that often seems more meaningful than simply finishing a thesis. I can see the dangers of getting carried away here. But it is helpful to balance the isolated work of writing a thesis with something that has more immediate benefits, hence why teaching keeps people sane. (And as much as I value the mental balance I gained from this experience, I really wish there was some form of financial compensation for graduate students and their labour in all kinds of roles within the department that go beyond their core research and contracted teaching.)

But one thing that struck me when I ran the workshop earlier this week was how hard the students who attended were pushing themselves. This is once again a self-selecting group: they had to be motivated in order to make the investment of time and resources to travel to Edinburgh from their home institutions for this workshop. They were relentlessly focussed on achieving the best academic results and having the relevant skills to be the most credible candidates for scholarships going forward. But then many of them went even further than that, as if to meet greater and more unreasonable expectations: they were thinking of publications or conference papers already during their undergraduate studies. This is all too real for me because I remember how anxious I was about this when I was an undergraduate, wondering whether or not I had the relevant skills or achievements to be worthy of a scholarship. Indeed, this is part of the inevitable anxiety of reaching the end of one stage of one’s studies and planning the next one. I tried my best to assuage their worries with the benefit of a couple years’ hindsight on the application treadmill. But the staggering inflation of expectations undergraduate students face is frightening, and the consequent labour required of them to meet them is equally concerning. I am worried it might make it harder for them to enjoy what they study or be happy with their work.

Acknowledgements: As mentioned already, I would like to thank Charity McAdams, Brian Wall and Nick Spengler, who have been an outstanding source of support, perspective and encouragement, as well as all my other PhD colleagues who continue to motivate me every day. And I would like to thank the many talented undergraduate students I have had the pleasure to have worked with while assisting with the Edinburgh Undergraduate Literature Conference.