Strangely, being a good teacher is not what it might seem, a studied skill. It is more of an art than a science. Many training courses have the idea that to be a good teacher you need to do certain things, like encourage group work, project your voice, present in exciting ways using multi-media. Although all of this is important, none of these is ‘it’. Know your weaknesses and play to your strengths; that seems to be the best approach. Oh, and keep learning yourself; attend college; study something fun!
Strangely, I found the key to good teaching on the other side of the world. Twenty years ago, I was Visiting Fellow at Melbourne University and followed a course with around 100 BA students. As we drifted into lectures, music would play. It set the mood and tone for a relaxed, interactive class, Indigenous Australian Politics and Culture. The lecturer identified as Aboriginal, the only one among the Faculty academics. There were very few Aboriginal-identifying students. So, the vast majority of the class was White or Asian Australian. Their enthusiasm was genuine. Just like young Europeans keen to learn about the Holocaust, their hunger for knowledge reflected their desire for self-knowledge. Each week we would have a recap of what went before, in which students were encouraged to recap and comment. They differed greatly in their opinions. They felt quite free to disagree with the teacher and he was quite comfortable with that. He covered criminal justice, policing and prison, land rights, lifestyles and beliefs, colonial history, and contemporary social justice efforts. As an observer, the classroom seemed a real pedagogic hub; the classroom was not about teaching at all, but about learning. To know oneself and to know one’s own limitations, that was the secret.
Having been teaching at university for almost 35 years, I have done more than I can remember. This has involved over 20 years of online role play simulations with groups of MA students, from 15 to as many as 40 people and roles. I started with Venezuela. When I joined ISS in 2005, I was advised that Venezuela was not a ‘typical’ developing country. Well look at it now! Today, in terms of food security Venezuela falls somewhere between South Sudan and Yemen. Nobody on the Left or Centre-Left seems to want to discuss this case. So here is the first rule of good teaching: never think you know what will happen in the world. Second rule: never stop trying to understand what on earth is happening. History is important, so is trying to understand what is going on today, as we learn in class, whether virtual or face-to-face.
The Securitisation of Development MA course this year was a good example of where life provided lessons. In an early session, a student from the Woudestein campus of Erasmus University Rotterdam casually mentioned the Covid-19 virus outbreak in China and asked whether it could be seen as a security issue. We regularly discussed what was happening and how the virus was being securitized, moving from a crisis ‘over there’ in China, to Italy (as one student got stuck there) and then right on our doorstep. The last class was cancelled due to the coronavirus outbreak. Prior to that day we had managed to keep raising the coronavirus issue and it seemed almost unbelievable how an issue that had started out ‘over there’, as a ‘Chinese problem’ had travelled so fast to suspend our last class. During that class, one alumnus and one current MA student had each offered to talk about Syria and Somalia. This was not to be.
Higher Education institutions are now closed for face-to-face teaching. In many ways, this process of naming Covid-19 a threat to our everyday security illustrated most themes in the course. Actions depend on definitions. Declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization, it became only a matter of time before we all had to start self-isolating. My satisfaction came with the way students seemed to learn how to cope in such a difficult situation, since every part of the course seemed to help explain what was going on. From the longer-term imperial history of security, to the security-development nexus after 9/11, and theories of (de)securitization, to humanitarianism, old and new (thanks to Professor Thea Hilhorst), inequality and insecurity (thanks to Professor Mansoob Murshed), psycho-social approaches (Dr Shyamika Jayasundara-Smits); all parts of the course contributed to making sense of all this.
So for me, good teaching is simply enabling oneself, and of course also others, to learn.