Reflections on teaching in the pandemic

During this academic year, as well as teaching through a pandemic, I have been working on a PCAP course (Postgraduate Certificate in Academic Practice). A few months ago, as part of the assessment of this, I had to write a number of reflective case studies about my work. These were linked together with a reflective introduction which was quite heartfelt, looking very briefly at the experience of pandemic teaching as a new starter in the context of established theories/models about early academic life. I’m not wholly ashamed of that introduction and I thought it might be of more general interest, and so I’m posting it here with minor edits. It is, of course, very basic: I am no expert in this area and make no claims to novel insight!

The early years of a lecturer’s first permanent role are generally expected to be hard, for multiple reasons: the new academic is coming to understand their new role and identity (Simmons, 2011, Wilkinson, 2018) while also learning the systems of their new institution and, often, developing a large amount of new teaching material. Kugel (1993) described new lecturers initially focusing on self, and then subject. Only later do they shift to considering students, and hence transition from a teaching-led to a learning-led way of thinking – which in turn leads to consideration of more sophisticated pedagogies.

Covid-19, and the resulting emergency shift to online teaching, has added to this load. Watermeyer et al (2021) speak, based on a large survey, of “academics bruised by their experience of emergency online transition… A story of trauma in the face of… profound professional and personal disruption… Of self-concept on trial and in tatters”. The emergency introduction of blended learning has upended Kugel’s progression by forcing staff who are in their first year of teaching, who are still developing self and subject knowledge, to engage very firmly with learning-led approaches. It is not clear whether this is beneficial for students, but it has surely increased the level of rapid adjustment and assimilation of ideas that Simmons and Wilkinson described.

This research feels quite pertinent to my own situation as a new starter. Much of the material that I have been adapting for emergency online learning is material that I have never taught before, and I have been learning to navigate the systems of a university in flux without any knowledge of how those systems work in normal times.

Goffman, as cited & described by Wilkinson (2018), discussed university teaching through a theatrical metaphor. He described “backstage” contexts in which lecturers can stop performing, and “stage talk” where they discuss performance techniques with colleagues. Wilkinson discussed differences in how much backstage space is available for a woman in a male-dominated field, but it is also interesting to consider how these concepts may differ – and how this might affect the development of professional identity – in a year when lecturers are working from home, and are connected to students and peers only during clearly designated periods when their webcams are on.

Posted by simon in Reflective


Whiteboard markers and a whiteboard.This term, in addition to my modelling work at Marine Scotland, I’m the instructor for two masters modules at ICIT (Heriot-Watt’s Orkney campus). This is my first experience of teaching, beyond the occasional seminar here and there, and I’m really enjoying it. I have a small group of interested students, who want to be there (I realise that this is a privilege of teaching postgrad), who ask intelligent questions… and that makes it really rewarding.

It’s also very hard work. I was brought in at fairly short notice after a lecturer left, to fill in the gap before a new one could be recruited. I’m only going to be delivering this content once, yet I’ve chosen to put together my own material for it based on what the previous instructor did, rather than using his directly. That’s because the content follows a different logical order in my head to his, and… well, as anybody who has tried giving a presentation using somebody else’s slides will attest, it’s not a great experience for anybody concerned. So I’m talking to students for 2-2.5 hours most mornings, and spending the afternoons preparing future material – trying to stay 2-3 days ahead, but occasionally catching up with myself. It’s not a pace that I could sustain in the long term, but it works for a few weeks.

This experience has reassured me that, should I be successful in landing a long-term academic role in the future (and I realise that that is a very long way from guaranteed), then I would be able to embrace the teaching side as enthusiastically as the research.

Of course, this is only half of the job. My lectures finish next week, but towards the end of the year the marking will begin….

Posted by simon in Professional updates, Reflective

Nagasaki Marine Festival

Today I visited the Nagasaki Marine Festival at the invitation of the Nagasaki Marine Industry Cluster Promotion Association*.

This was an event aimed at the public, lasting for the three-day weekend that is in progress here, aiming (I think) to raise the profile of the Nagasaki marine technology industry while entertaining and informing people. There were a host of exhibits on renewable energy, sub-sea survey, seamanship skills, vessels for oil & gas exploration, etc., and plenty of activities for kids.

Japanese teacher helping Japanese school student with soldering.

A teacher helping with soldering. Photo: Author.

I found myself “helping” (so far as one can via Google Translate) a small group of high school students to troubleshoot a home-made ROV that they had built. I felt very pleased when I suggested a bodge to test something, one of them tried it, and suddenly thrusters started turning. That facial expression is priceless, and is a reason that I enjoy the little teaching that I do.


* Japanese organisational names that are directly translated into English often seem to come out a little long, unwieldy, and formal. They are, however, very precise.

Posted by simon in Working in Japan

Bon voyage.

Image by Pixabay user Skeeze, licensed CC0 public domain.

After a lot of buildup I’m packed, and I leave in the morning for Edinburgh. Which isn’t so exciting, but will be followed the next day by the journey to Japan. I’m very excited, and also nervous; nervous for many reasons, but I think most of all because I’ll be working with new collaborators who I’ve corresponded with by email, but never actually met. I’m sure all will be fine, but the beginning of new relationships is always a nervous time.

By a strange coincidence, today I found myself talking about my work to a group of “Marine Ambassadors”, undergraduates and high school students from Nagasaki who were visiting Orkney. They were amused to hear that I was going to pass through Nagasaki before they got back there!

While packing yesterday, I reflected that there were some things I was doing a little differently to a normal trip:

  • I have a small stock of Orkney whisky and fudge, because it’s customary to give gifts at the start of a visit.
  • For similar cultural reasons, I have twice as many business cards as usual.
  • I’ve sorted through my amusing T-shirts, and avoided taking the ones that rely on language humour. In doing this, I realised that most of my amusing T-shirts rely on language humour.
  • I’ve bought, and packed, some slip-on shoes. They’re not something I usually wear, but Japan is a place that can require taking one’s shoes off a lot, and re-lacing things gets boring fast.

Stay tuned!

Posted by simon in Working in Japan