Reflections from an Engineer

Engineers find it difficult to relate to traditional teaching theories which are embedded in the humanities. This Unit Coordinator spent years reading and now understands the literature. Experience has taught him a great deal about the university culture. More...

I have been teaching engineering for 20 years and have found that most academics are willing to give advice when asked.  A previous Head of School restricted collaboration, though, when he commented that all academics are individual entrepreneurs.  He explained that we are smart people and problem solvers so we should be able to get on with it.  Whether he was aware of it or not, he explicated the value our university places on those who support others; it is not formally recognised as an activity, so do not waste your time doing it.  Mentoring new academics is regarded in the same way.  The university does not have the model quite right in terms of who is capable, who has the capacity, and who should be responsible for providing mentoring.

The Centre for Learning and Teaching provides a service throughout the university and stores a wealth of information on how to be a successful teacher.  After years of uncertainty, I eventually started to understand the literature myself.    Often, teaching relates to context but for those of us in engineering, the physical sciences and maths, the education culture is different.  Engineers find it difficult to relate to traditional teaching theories that are embedded in the humanities and the related jargon because they are alien to the engineer’s education and thought processes.  Being a teacher in the classroom is very different from the one-on-one in the professional laboratory where you are helping students to design a system.  It is labour intensive and tiring.

In this job you must trust your own judgement.  Unit Coordinators have to find something about their materials they enjoy in order to lead their students to learn.  If they convey reluctance or fear of their subject the students will pick up on that.  To succeed in the role Unit Coordinators must overcome their fear, or move on.  I would also be encouraging new academics to seek guidance from a colleague who has had some dealings with engineering or science in the workplace.

Some of my colleagues answer emails at midnight.  Adopting this practice leads students to misunderstand your availability.  They will be likely to rely on you rather than resolving their own problems.  One final word:  I have learnt that change occurs frequently in universities and then passes so, rather than spend my time on mastering changes, I now wait and see.

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