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This issue of CDTL Brief features the teaching practices of some 2006/2007 Annual Teaching Excellence Award (ATEA) winners.

October 2008, Vol. 11 No. 3 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
A Teaching Re-evaluation
Associate Professor Tim Bunnell
Department of Geography

I never wanted to be a teacher. At school, I was never quite sure what I wanted to be when I‘grew up’. But my mother was (and still is) a teacher and that was one thing I was quite sure that I did not wish to do. Even after completing my PhD, I did not give much thought to teaching. I came to NUS as a postdoctoral fellow in 1999 determined to publish my research and keen to avoid teaching for as long as possible. When the honeymoon ended—I became an Assistant Professor half way through the second year of my ‘postdoc’ in 2000—I calculated that continued ‘success’ as an academic meant minimising teaching to allow further expansion of my publication list.

The outcome of this kind of attitude was fairly predictable. The student feedback for the two modules which I co-taught in Semester 1 Academic Year (AY) 2000/2001 was appalling. I could not bring myself to keep a copy of the evaluations although I can laugh about them now. I can still remember many of the comments and this one—“Replace this lecturer”—still haunts me! In the second semester, I invested a good deal more in my classes not because I actually valued teaching any more highly, but because of fear that more negative feedback may cost me my job.

Taking the Professional Development Programme (Teaching) (PDP-T) at CDTL prior to my second year of teaching was the real turning point. Unlike many of the other participants who had just joined NUS, I attended the course with a year of teaching nightmares behind me and so I realised that I needed all the help I could get. In retrospect, it was not so much the content of course which was important but the fact that it provided an opportunity to start to think about pedagogical issues. Conversations with fellow participants during the course (some of whom became good friends) spilled over into lunch and coffee times; and these conversations, in turn, spread to other colleagues, especially those who already took their roles as teachers seriously. I sat in on some of these colleagues’ classes to see what worked for them and (yes, I admit) to copy some of their good teaching practices.

It was during my second year as a lecturer that I began to derive some satisfaction from teaching. Part of this was attributable to the simple relief that my student evaluation scores had improved (it is not just students who can be motivated by the fear of getting ‘bad marks’). However, there were two other, more important, reasons. The first is the more obvious: teaching can be a great form of learning. Developing two new modules in AY 2001/2002 stretched me beyond the horizons of my own doctoral research and postdoctoral writing. I went on to teach these classes in subsequent academic years and I can trace important strands of my own learning through associated changes to course structure and content.

A second reason for my beginning to value teaching more highly in that second year stemmed from an initial glimpse of the transformative potential of critical pedagogy. The key moments were often those when a student said, “I see”. What this implied was not just that s/he saw what I meant, but also that s/he had begun—in however modest or incremental a way—to see differently. One way in which academics can ‘make a difference’ is through helping students to see (and thereby to act) differently.

A related point—one which I came to appreciate later—is that the aim of trying to help students to see differently does not necessarily mean trying to make them see like me. The distinction is an important one as there is a danger of imaginatively reducing students to ‘less advanced’ versions of ourselves. Interactions with NUS students over the past few years have relieved me of any such arrogance. Each student is a unique assemblage of capacities, competencies and experiences. Everyone brings something different—something of value—to class; everyone can make a difference beyond class. As teachers, we have an important chance to initiate or help to cultivate ways of seeing and doing that inevitably extend beyond our own capacities.

This leads onto a final aspect of my re-evaluation of teaching and that concerns the recognition that I learn a lot from students. The most obvious example of this in Geography courses is that every member of my class has a unique set of experiences of places, spaces and landscapes.

Yet this too carries a danger of ‘localising’ students’ knowledge while arrogating to oneself the position of global, theoretical overseer. Following the contributions of feminist geographers which inform my teaching (and which, in fact, I read partly for my teaching), it is important for human geographers at least to recognise that we all see from somewhere (i.e. we are all ‘positioned’). Both casual and formal feedback from students, has forced me to interrogate the Anglo- or Euro-centrism of some of my own assumptions and framings. Students, then, have contributed to—rather than simply being on the receiving end of—a postcolonial shift in my approach to teaching (and research).

The value I now place on teaching forms part of a broader process of re-imagining its relation to learning and researching. These activities are a good deal more intertwined than I once imagined. If PDP-T set me on a path of learning to teach, I now appreciate that teaching is a great way of learning, not only through preparing to deliver content but also through exposure to students’ insights. Teaching can also be understood as a way of realising social and political goals (which I previously largely associated with the separate realm of research and writing). I still get anxious about my teaching, but the source of that anxiety has changed—from the fear of damning comments from students (which have not entirely disappeared, by the way) to a sense of responsibility resulting from a gradual reevaluation of my academic priorities.

 First Look articles

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Inside this issue
A Teaching Re-evaluation
Close Reading as Critical Thinking
Small-group Teaching for First-year Law Students—Thoughts from a Tutorial Taskmaster
Teaching: A Learning Process for Towards a Student Driven Pedagogy
Engaging the Phenomenon
Thai Language Teaching at NUS
Learning from Failures
Learning Through Teaching