Friday 23 February 2018

The oxymoron of time-efficient teaching.

by Rebecca Laycock, Teaching Fellow in Environment and Sustainability, Keele University

Bekki is a previous winner of the Keele excellence awards more details can be found here

In the autumn semester 2017 I was faced with one of my biggest challenge I’ve had to deal with so far as a teacher. When I first started teaching it was expected that I would take more time to prepare for classes, be less efficient, and make more mistakes. It’s part of what it means to start something new.
picture of  a busy classroom with a plant in the foreground and blurred faces of students behind it
My first real teaching experience was a condensed two-week module taught in Nanjing, China at part of an international collaborative undergraduate programme in Environment and Sustainability. I have since taught this module two more times. 

But having completed over a year of teaching, I was starting to feel like a real teacher - not just someone faking it at the front of the class. And since I was a real teacher, there were certain expectations that were attached to this newfound credibility… one of which was that I needed to do more with less time. Fair enough, I thought. I am a real teacher now. So, I started finding ways to cut corners. My challenge became how can I deliver a quality educational experience as efficiently as possible?

Around this time, I also took on a role in the HEFCE-funded ‘Unmaking Single Perspectives: A Listening Project’. The aim of the project was to support students develop their listening skills. The rationale behind it was that, in spite of being an important communication skill, there is far greater emphasis on teaching students to argue a point than on how to be an effective listener.

Student Advisor Roxy Birdsall talks about her experience being involved with Unmaking Single Perspectives: A Listening Project

So what is listening? It’s more than hearing. You need to open a space for another person to speak. Because of this, listening is more than sitting and being quiet while another person talks. Listening uses your whole body. You use your ears to hear, sometimes you look at the person to read their body language - and you use your whole body too, to show the other person that you are listening. All of this enables them to openly share their thoughts.

Listening is challenging mental work because it isn’t passive – it requires physical and mental engagement. You need to be taking in what the other person is saying (though their words and tone of voice), and you need to be quick thinking enough to respond and probe thoughtfully without letting your own thoughts prevent you from listening, all whilst reading and responding to their body language.

Before getting involved in the Listening Project, I hadn’t reflected much on listening in the context of my role as a teacher. But before long, I became conscious of the range of listening skills that are required in all different modes of teaching, from lectures, to seminars, to one-on-one support. I came to be especially aware of listening in a particular type of one-on-one teaching interactions: meetings with dissertation students. My meetings with my dissertation students usually ran between 15 and 45 minutes, depending on their needs, the stage they were at, and their English language skills. I started arranging these meetings back to back to save time and to limit the length of the meetings.

But it didn’t feel right. It was utterly draining, and as a result I wasn’t able to listen properly to the students. My patience waned. I heard myself telling them what to do rather than asking questions to find out what they really meant. This was one area of my teaching that I couldn’t seem to make more efficient.

This push for efficiency, this challenge I was being faced with as a ‘real’ teacher, is a manifestation of the demand of the neoliberal university which asks academics to do more and more with less. This was (and is) a model I can’t make sense of – it is unsustainable to expect more efficiency year on year.

In the face of this apparent oxymoron, I found an article by Alison Mountz and her colleagues who were making a case for an alternative. They argued to slow down and claim time for slow scholarship as an in the face of a fast-paced, metric-oriented neoliberal university. I was heartened by this idea. Like them, I feel that slowing down represents a commitment to good scholarship, teaching, and service, and a collective feminist ethics of care that challenges the accelerated time and elitism of the neoliberal university (emphasis mine).

Like them, I am in favour of a fundamental restructuring of the university as a workplace

and learning environment, but this isn’t something that can be done overnight. This is why they suggest ways academics, as individuals and as a community, can take steps towards change. They say to take time for your work. Reach for the minimum (rather than maximum) level of achievement in order to produce quality rather than quantity. Say no to more work. Don’t respond you your email at all hours. All of these actions provide space to become a better listener, and a better teacher.

I help tend to the student-run beds in Walled Garden on Fridays. This is where some of the most genuine and productive conversations I’ve had with students have taken place. I attribute much of this to the fact that the conversations aren’t time-restricted or purpose-driven. [Photo by Greenie Mine]

It must be said that I do feel there are ways to be an efficient teacher. I usually take an afternoon walk to clear my head, so scheduling dissertation meetings either side means that I can have some mental respite before resuming the taxing challenge of listening. And it’s true that I need less time to prepare for lectures and seminars I have already delivered. But at some point, we need to recognise that the reality is this: a good teacher is not one who can be increasingly more and more efficient. Being a good teacher requires effective listening, and effective listening requires time. And there is no room for compromise.

To find out more about Unmaking Single Perspectives: A Listening Project click here, and click here to see their upcoming events.

Disclaimer: This post has also been made available at the Listening Project’s Blog.


Mountz, A., Bonds, A., Mansfield, B., Loyd, J., Hyndman, J., Walton-Roberts, M., ... & Curran, W. (2015). For slow scholarship: A feminist politics of resistance through collective action in the neoliberal university. ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies, 14(4), 1235-1259.

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The oxymoron of time-efficient teaching. by Rebecca Laycock, Teaching Fellow in Environment and Sustainability, Keele University is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
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