Last week was the final week of the undergraduate semester here in Australia, and there was a general sigh of relief going around the History Department here at Monash. I mean, there is still a lot of essay marking to do, but no longer would our weeks be taken over by the preparation and teaching of classes!
Implicit in this way of thinking is the idea that teaching is some kind of obstacle to completing a PhD. It consumes precious time and energy, and the financial rewards are not at all sufficient to make up for this.
I disagree with this position, and have come with five reasons why every PhD student in the humanities should do some teaching during their candidature.
1. Teaching forces you to use time wisely
Teaching undergraduate classes requires a great deal of preparation. One must complete the readings for the week, attend the lecture, and then plan for the actual teaching of the class. This all happens while trying to continue working on a thesis, and heaven forbid, enjoy some kind of social life. And then the marking arrives.
It is impossible to maintain sanity in this kind of environment without a clear idea of how you use your time. Putting aside a couple of hours a day to write/read thesis stuff during semester is super important. On the flipside, setting clear limits as to how much time is given to preparing for class is also essential.
2. Teaching outside your research topic can be liberating
One thing about a PhD thesis in history is that it is very easy to become focused solely on your one little topic. I can honestly say that I would goinsane if the only things I read/wrote for four years were about Australian and American policies towards Southeast Asia following World War II. Teaching acts an escape from my research topic.
I’ve been fortunate enough to teach in units close to my research topic. However, I’ve also taught in units that dealt with the aftermath of genocide or that look at globalisation. I’ve learned as much, if not more, than my students, and had an extremely rewarding experience teaching those subjects.
3. Teaching helps to put your skills into perspective
I’ve lost count of the times throughout my postgraduate career where I have felt that I am in no way qualified to be doing what I’m doing. Whether it isafter a supervisor tears apart a chapter, or a colleague produce a brilliant presentation, that ‘imposter syndrome’ is never far from the surface.
That all melts away after reading the work of undergraduates. My students rarely replicate the care that I put into my own work. Even the strongest pieces of undergraduate work reinforce my own ability. Marking essays, as draining as it can be, can make me feel better about my own work.
4. Teaching allows you to interact with other academics
I have never taught a unit with either my Master’s or Doctoral supervisors. This has meant that I’ve been exposed to new approaches to historical studies and also results in a stronger involvement in the department. Some co-ordinators are great and have taken an interest in my own research.
This has helped to make me feel more involved in the work of the faculty as well as to have another person to bounce ideas off. Without teaching, I would have far fewer contacts amongst the academic staff in my department.
5. Teaching allows for greater contact with other postgraduates
To me, this is the most important benefit I’ve obtained from teaching at university. As the cliché goes, a PhD in history can be a lonely journey indeed. Being a tutor at university has enabled me to find a small group of colleagues with whom I can share issues with teaching as well as with my research.
I’ve been lucky to find such a close group of people who are now my friends, and I know not all postgrads are so lucky. All I know is that if I had solely focused on completing my research without also doing some sessional teaching, I wouldn’t have the support group I now rely on to get through my various responsibilities.