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  • Writer's pictureChelsea Haith

Teaching; at Oxford and elsewhere

Have you seen that tweet about what online learning at Harvard looks like? The one with the huge screen filled with people's faces joining the 'classroom' from all over the world (students leaving their videos on, an obvious lie)? The one with a very-enthusiastic looking lecturer who is gesticulating wildly, looking like she's crushing the game, writing on a digital blackboard like it's the future or something?

That is:

a) the Harvard Business School ($$$$$$), and they've been teaching in that online environment for years, and the students' experiences are still mediated through their screens

b) NOT what it's like teaching English at Oxford.

This is the classroom I've been working in for the last five weeks:

It used to be the Graduate Workspace, and was commandeered for distanced teaching when it was decided that we had to teach in-person where possible, during the pandemic.

To be fair, very few grads ever really used this room because it smells like the carpet has been kept lightly damp for a decade. And it's freezing. Under the new conditions of 'blended-teaching', we had isolating students joining the class over Teams, while the rest of the seminar attendees sat masked up and near the windows, which were open to the sounds of ongoing construction work across the road. It was also very cold last week. Troopers, all.

I love teaching, I love students, and classrooms (when they don't smell like granny's storage facility), but I am very very happy to be done with in-person, blended and zoom-classes for the next few weeks. No more wondering at the end of working day: 'Are my eyes actually bleeding, or does it just feel that way?'

In the last five terms I've taught visiting students, first years Prelims 1B, TA-ed a comp-lit Masters course and a third-year paper, supervised a handful of third year dissertations, and various other bits, including a little lecture and a fair bit of access work. With two Oxford winters behind me, this term I knew to 'front-load' my teaching. I need to spend November walking around in the last few precious minutes of afternoon sunlight trying to delay the inevitable onset of Seasonal Affective Disorder. Usually, I go swimming (indoors), but... that's less of an option at the minute. Instead, I walk. And wave to my students as they go by on their way to... nowhere. We none of us have anywhere to go. We're all just walking in circles in Uni Parks, taking photos of the same pretty trees. We have nowhere to go, and nowhere to be.

Usually teaching at Oxford is a dream. The tutorial system, for which Oxbridge is known, is an excellent way to improve students' essay writing and in-person articulation skills. It can therefore be extremely gratifying for tutors. When I take seminars, I find it's lovely to learn from and with students, and I particularly enjoy being surprised by students with a radical hot take. (Wadham College students are great ones for a radical hot take).

I like to drift through the beautiful quads of ancient colleges on my way to classes or seminars. The lovely surroundings help to alleviate the bitterness brought on by being paid only for the hour of teaching and not the six or so hours of prep or the eight (so far) years of tertiary education that made it possible for me to give the class. Luckily, it's all 'experience'. Frankly, I think artists and musicians should thank their lucky stars they get exposure into the bargain.

Elsewhere, teaching is different, and probably more-or-less the same depending on the role; the uni; the contract (or lack thereof); the manager; the pay; the weather; the marking load; departmental gender and race equity policies; foolish remarks from the government; the necessity of strikes, the desire to share the delights of literature; the wish never to be so cold and in so smelly a room again; and given the COVID-19 pandemic, the risk to our health. This is to say, teaching in tertiary education institutions varies widely and it is sometimes wonderful and sometimes awful.

And the worst thing is, we do it because we like it.

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