When you read this article, we will be starting a new semester
in a variety of teaching situations. Personally, I will be
grappling with new challenges in three new modules. In my
first module, I will be trying to preserve seminar-style teaching
in an introductory class that potentially may exceed 40 students.
In my second, I will be working with two teaching assistants
on a more advanced course which, since it has been designated
as a Singapore Studies module, will attract students who will
not be majoring in my area of teaching specialisation: this
is both an opportunity and a challenge. Finally, I will be
sharing teaching on a graduate module; it will be taught in
the evening, and the majority of students will be taking a
part-time degree, balancing work, family responsibilities
and study. The problem I anticipate here will be to maintain
academic standards while at the same time acknowledging the
real difficulties such students face.
At NUS, each of us faces a unique teaching situation: in
a recent discussion with colleagues from other faculties,
I learned that one considered a class of over fifteen students
as large, while another wished for ‘small’ classes
of under 50. As a recipient of the 2001/2002 Outstanding Educator
Award, it would be easy for me to adopt a one-size-fits-all
approach, and offer a number of teaching tips, some of which
will be relevant to each of us. However, there are websites
and library resources that could do this better than I can
(for instance, the excellent Berkeley Compendium of Suggestions
for Teaching with Excellence, the URL of which is given at
the end of the article). Thinking back, the one factor that
has made the difference in my own teaching in the past, and
which I think we need to give greater attention to at NUS,
is the presence of community. Practices such as talking to
colleagues about teaching strategies in informal settings,
of having non-academic staff sitting in on modules, and of
getting feedback from and discussing pedagogy with students
outside of formal structures seem to me vital in developing
a vibrant learning community.
In teaching, and indeed in university life in general, it
is often difficult to realise the distinction between structures
and communities. Structures are put in place for specific
reasons, and the best structures will be flexible enough to
allow communities to grow within and around them. An example
of such a structure is the new peer review process for teaching
evaluation. The process has clearly been exhaustively thought
through, and in my experience can in itself enable ongoing
discussions regarding pedagogy between different faculty members.
It cannot, and should not, however, replace the value of semi-formal
interaction in a non-evaluative setting. Structures can be
easily changed by fiat, but communities need time to form,
and need nurturing in order to grow: in times of rapid structural
change communities may become fragmented, damaged or disappear.
In my teaching in the coming semester, I have thought out
some strategies through which I would hope to foster the growth
of learning communities. First, I hope to meet with my students
informally outside of class time, over lunch or through other
activities. Within the bounds of normal standards of academic
confidentiality, I think it is important to discuss matters
to do with choices in syllabus design and administrative practice
with students. Students in my experience are often reassured
if they discover the rationale for deadlines, grading conventions,
and so on, which may seem to them initially inexplicable.
If we are open to criticism, presenting decisions made personally,
or at the departmental or faculty level as solutions to real
dilemmas, we encourage students to become part of the solution.
Indeed, students will often make useful suggestions—at
times blindingly obvious—that we have not thought of.
Secondly, I would hope to build relationships with administrative
professionals and non-academic staff with whom I work, which
involve us gaining knowledge of each other’s roles.
Faculty are often quick to forget the important part such
staff play in teaching, and I’ve often been surprised
in NUS at the gap between faculty and other staff in terms
of knowledge of each other’s work: for me, indeed, this
is one of the biggest differences between university life
in Singapore versus other universities I have taught at. Again,
informal contacts and discussion of dilemmas as dilemmas,
not as demands, can help here: many non-teaching staff have
qualifications and experience that are not tapped on, and,
with encouragement, can become much more active and autonomous
members of a learning community.
Thirdly, I’ve resolved to try to increase the semi-formal
space of interaction regarding teaching, hopefully by offering
a departmental seminar not on research, but on a teaching
issue. Most departments and units hold regular seminars, but
they tend to be largely on research topics, providing opportunities
for the testing out of a conference paper. Yet teaching is
just as vital a topic, and can be the subject of equally intense
When part of a team giving input into a new building design
at NUS, I requested space for informal ‘interaction
spaces’ in the building where students and faculty members
could meet informally and chat. A Singaporean colleague noted
that such spaces existed at Cambridge, but that they were
called pubs. Students who return from the Student Exchange
Programme regularly tell me that the classroom environment
at their host institution—frequently an Ivy League school,
a top Asian university, or a Russell Group university in the
UK—is often similar to NUS, but that the host institution
possesses something extra: a campus atmosphere of learning,
fostered through informal and autonomous community ties. Education
is enabled not just in the interaction between student and
faculty member, but by a host of other factors, of which community
is surely a valuable and neglected one.
Davis, Barbara Gross; Wood, Lynn & Wilson, Robert C.
(1983). A Berkeley Compendium of Suggestions for Teaching
with Excellence. University of California at Berkeley. http://teaching.berkeley.edu/compendium/. (Last Accessed: 17 December 2002).
Associate Professor Philip Holden is a winner of the
2001/2002 Outstanding Educator Award.