Thursday, 30 April 2015

Demonstrator's reflections

I was a demonstrator at a fieldcourse recently. As much as I enjoyed the whole experience it made me wonder about the position that demonstrators are put in, how we are perceived by students and the consequences of it all.


I could see that the students were treating us, the demonstrators, differently than they were treating the PIs. While I understand that we are not as "scary" and much closer to the students' age, I wondered whether there was more to it. Do they pick up on the academic hierarchy that much?

Does it start with the label demonstrator itself? If demonstrators have the exact same responsibilities as the PIs when it comes to supervision of the ongoing projects during the fieldcourse (we might have different outside the fieldcourse, but that shouldn't matter), then why do we get a different label? Doesn't this label suggest that we are somehow less worthy as "teachers"?

I could clearly see that some students had doubts about the quality of things I was telling them - they would ask the PIs the exact same question after I've given them the answer (and when the PI would give them the same answer they'd listen...). This seemed to be the case more often with male than female students too.

Social cues

I also wonder whether it's the attitude of the PIs towards the demonstrators and maybe even demonstrators' attitude towards the PIs that complicates things more. PIs are unlikely to perceive PhD students as their true equals and vice versa. I imagine that students pick up on that too. They seemed amazed that I go to the pub with the PIs: in the eyes of the students the PIs are demigods. What is it like? they would ask, full of awe, wide-eyed, hungry to get a glimpse of the glamour of pub-going. I didn't really know how to respond, I felt like I was crashing all their hopes and dreams by telling them that the experience is not life changing.


If the students generally think that the quality of the demonstrators (their knowledge, work, ideas etc.) is lower that that of the PIs when it comes to teaching... Couldn't that mean that the groups supervised by demonstrators might be unhappy because they didn't get a PI, a real teacher/researcher? I'd hate my students to feel like they were worse off or missed out, or that their education was compromised because a demonstrator (me) was put in charge of them rather than a PI.

I also imagine the whole situation could easily be made worse if PIs talk over demonstrators, interrupt them or question them in front of students. United front would be best here, if everyone has the same responsibilities and authority then this should be made clear to students and supported by appropriate behaviours throughout the course/lab/class.

Disclaimer: Of course to some degree this could be overthinking. But as I perceive thinking as a useful exercise. I have also shared and discussed some of those thoughts with other demonstrators and I found that I am not alone. Just to be clear: those are general musings and not necessarily linked to any particular events at this specific fieldcourse.

Monday, 13 April 2015

Demonstrating on a marine ecology fieldcourse

I have demonstrated during a few practical labs and I've also done some essay marking before. But this was the first time I was demonstrating on a fieldcourse. It was so much fun, I loved it!

It was a week long marine ecology residential fieldcourse, very hands on. We were based at a field centre on the Great Cumbrae island, which many people associate with its only town - Millport. There is a variety of marine habitats easily accessible there, with sandy, muddy and rocky shores with different levels of exposure. Perfect for research and teaching.

There were several PIs and three demonstrators (including me).  Each of us had their own group of students to supervise; there were four students in mine. I have to say that I was rather impressed by the commitment of the vast majority of the students. Thankfully my group was no exception, they were all hard working and keen young scientists. There is nothing quite the same as watching young people learn and enjoy the process, watching them figure out problems and improve, gain confidence and learn from their mistakes. I like teaching!

Even though I enjoyed the course a lot, I found some aspects of it a bit tricky from a logistics, lets call it, point of view. I think it deserves a separate post, so keep your eyes peeled.