I teach the first core law unit that students study as part of their course. Between 600 and 800 students enrol each semester. To deliver lectures I employ up to five full-time academics, and more than 10 sessional staff to facilitate the 30 to 40 tutorials of 20 students each per week. Selecting people who can teach well and then managing this number of staff have been my biggest challenges.
Some time ago, the law school created an Excel spread sheet to record contact details of people who express an interest in teaching in a particular subject. This ‘pool’ of sessional staff is then interviewed and shortlisted, which has enabled us to identify and recruit a number of high quality sessionals, and remove some of the worry. New staff attend a ‘sessional academic day’ and each receives a publication developed by the law school that helps them gain a feel for what their job will entail.
Juggling with the timetables of full time academics to find those available to assist me during the high-pressure times of marking, administration and examinations, is another challenge. There is little incentive for them to help, so the Head of School steps in to reorganise their workloads. I also engage experienced sessional tutors to respond to generic questions asked by students and only get involved if they are unable to answer them. I could request the assistance of professional staff (administration), but I am wary about my relationship with staff and students becoming faceless.
I commenced here as a full time sessional lecturer after leaving private practice. I received only generic induction, there were few relevant policies in place, and little was written down about the role. However, new Unit Coordinators are now ‘buddied’ with more senior academics and I have heard that many find this arrangement beneficial.
After a year of teaching 20 to 30 hours per week, I was offered unit coordination. Working as a sessional lecturer helped me to understand how units are run and assessed. I also found opportunities to observe other Unit Coordinators in practice and, during the low-pressure times, ‘forced’ myself into the mindset before jumping into the role. I was fortunate in also finding a mentor who was slightly removed from the School, and who provided advice and another voice in regard to how to approach the role. Under his guidance I learnt to identify the key pressure points and to more proactively plan. My ‘staged’ introduction into the Unit Coordinator’s role; from expert lawyer in practice, to sessional staff member to co-coordinating units helped me settle in well while learning along the way.
At this university, research is ‘front and centre’. You can put all your time into becoming an excellent Unit Coordinator and teacher but it is clear to me that research is valued more than teaching and service. The ‘official’ position is that all three are equal but I do not see it that way. Fortunately, our Head of School is mindful of the demands and is helpful in balancing our workloads. I believe that if the University maintains its sole focus on research it will be to the detriment of its teaching. This will start to seep into the public domain and prospective students may choose other universities where excellent teaching prevails. This matters more to them than research.