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Seek out the priceless moments

This software engineer coordinator would like to know the right thing to do in all situations but finds managing staff the toughest job of all, despite systems he puts in place. He knows there are no shortcuts but gains satisfaction from the positive outcomes he receives from the effort expended. More...

I coordinate units in software engineering.  My classes usually contain 300 or more students and I manage 10 or 12 tutors and lab assistants.  Students out of high school have high expectations, so I always ask my new students what they expect from my units.  If I meet their expectations my classes are likely to go smoothly.

It would be good to know the right thing to do in all situations but I find managing staff the toughest job of all.  I have put systems in place and I am more explicit in my communication of instructions although, even then, things can go wrong.  For example, my colleague and I developed what we thought was a clear marking guide but when we re-marked a sample of papers we found disparities of up to 15%.

I am familiar with the university’s policies but find it helpful to only focus on those relevant to my teaching.  Nevertheless, no matter how often I explain procedural things to students there will be some who query them again and again. I know you can’t eliminate this sort of thing entirely, but it does get frustrating.  Coordinators in charge of large units can appoint head tutors to handle on-line news groups and enquiries.  Sometimes, though, students will still come directly to me if they are seeking to appeal a decision made by the head tutor.  I try to be honest and direct with my students, and not fall into the trap of giving them ‘silver platter service’ every time they ask me for something.

With the government decision to encourage 40% of school leavers into university, I am worried that we will have to be more prescriptive in our instructions.  Whether teaching first years, or large classes or international students my sense is that if you teach well, you will get the outcomes you want.  There is a right way to teach the algorithmic, abstract and arguably dry concepts in IT.  The top 5% of students have been able to cope with the level of abstraction.  It may not come as naturally for the next 30% who are entering university now.

We have been told by our head of school to improve our research outputs or we will fall behind.  I am not sure if I have found the balance yet between teaching and research but I have become more disciplined and ruthless about allocating my time.  I advise new colleagues not to neglect research and that teaching takes more time than they might think.  Much time and effort is required to gain good student feedback and satisfaction in the role.  There are no shortcuts.

I like dealing with the good students who take on board what I have told them.  I like it, too, when I send a paper off to a journal and it is accepted, and when my PhD students graduate.  I also get satisfaction when a colleague phones to say he used one of my ideas and found it to work.  These moments are priceless.  I advise new academics to seek out those moments and to find ways to make their work interesting.  It is easy to feel like a lone wolf when you are the sole person coordinating 300 students and managing 15 staff.  However, I find interacting and sharing with like-minded people at conferences and computer networks helps to keep me motivated.

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