Reflections on the end of another academic year

And so another academic year ends – except for the shed loads of marking I’ve to do. Once again, I taught all years from first to fourth.  My biggest take away? The class dynamic is a mysterious thing.

Final year students are generally easy to teach. They’re usually mature, eager to do well and keen to get on with their careers and lives. First years are also easy to teach but only if the class size is small (as mine is), and not if you have to endure one of those mega-classes where 250+ students are crammed into an enormous lecture theatre for hours on end.  (Advocates of ‘broad entry’ take note.)

When you get the chance to work closely with first years, you find them to be raw, enthusiastic and a little naive. And there’s a pervasive sense in the class that they are embarking on a great journey. Everything is possible.

It’s with second and third years that the challenges lie, at least in my experience. It’s because of my experience with these groups of students that I would never have the nerve to make a blanket statement that I am a ‘good lecturer’.

I would hope that I am ‘good’ at least some of the time but I know there are times when I’m just adequate. But it’s not simple a question of having ‘off’ days. It’s more to do with the class dynamic and how I connect with that dynamic. It’s easy to teach bright enthusiastic students and over the years I have taught many classes where the general positivity in the class brought out the best in me. In those situations I think I have been ‘good’.

But there have been class groups over the years who just exuded negativity and apathy. There was never any malice involved and the individual students have always been very nice people in their own right. But when they got together for lectures, or even labs, they seemed to behave with a sort of hive mind, everyone a bit resentful and grumpy and seeing everything as an imposition on them. I’m not sure why that happens and I’m sure psychologists have studied group dynamics to death but when there is an air of negativity in a class it can drag the lecturer down despite their best efforts.

I know that there have been occasions when I could feel my enthusiasm fade within minutes of entering a class. In situations like that I don’t think I have been ‘good’ at all and that is a failure on my part.

But there’s always next year!

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About Greg Foley

A lecturer in Biotechnology in Dublin City University for more than 25 years. Trained as a Chemical Engineer in UCD (BE and PhD) and Cornell (MS). Does research on analysis and design of membrane filtration systems.
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