My contract of employment describes me as a “Lecturer in Law”, but lecturing is in fact a very small part of the role of a teacher of law in higher education, and some “lecturers” do not lecture at all. Accordingly, the terms lecturer, tutor and teacher can often be used interchangeably.
What is a lecture?
Lectures are generally lessons delivered to a whole course or large cohort where the teacher does all the talking and the students listen, learn a bit, and go off afterwards to find out more. The lecturer’s role consists of planning the lecture (and the PowerPoint presentations/hand-outs to accompany it) and delivering it.
The challenge is to keep students’ attention by being enthusiastic and informative, but also getting the fundamental elements of the topic across to encourage students to do further reading and research. Some institutions are supplementing or replacing lectures with e-learning and podcasts, but in law, lectures are often viewed as an indispensable way of getting key information across to a large number of students.
In my experience, those teachers who are new to teaching are rarely asked to lecture, at least not until they have done a couple of years of smaller group teaching. Good lectures are a great introduction to a topic, but done badly, they are as interesting as watching paint dry.
When I was first asked to lecture, I went on a university staff development course and picked up a whole host of skills and advice. I love lecturing, but that might be because I am a bit of a show off…
What is a tutorial?
Really, the major part of my weekly term-time teaching commitment consists of delivering tutorials. There is a great deal of preparation to be undertaken before tutorials and it is fair to say the first time you tutor a subject is the hardest. Students are usually asked to do preparation before tutorials, but not all do.
The tutor’s role is to know where the students need to be in terms of knowledge, understanding and skills by the end of the session and guide them there. Tutorials (also known as seminars, but seminars typically have larger student numbers) are a great learning forum; they should be interactive and there should be a free and open discussion.
Disagreements are to be encouraged, as long as opposing views are respected. Tutors should use tutorials to shape students’ opinions as well as develop or improve legal skills and knowledge. Tutorials are often the favourite part of a law teacher’s role.
On the other hand, only a few tutors really enjoy the marking aspect of the job, which is viewed by the majority as hard work, stressful and lonely. Nonetheless, marking is a vital part of the educational process. Most assessments have a clear rubric, assessment criteria and some sort of marking scheme or marking guidance.
Some unit/module leaders may hold a standardisation meeting before the marking starts to discuss the assessment within a team and adopt the same approach, but you cannot count on it. The most important to thing to do when marking is to be consistent. The unit/module leader will moderate the assessments before returning to students and if you are consistently too high or low, your marks can be adjusted, but if you are inconsistent, you may be asked to re-mark - something you will want to avoid.
How much marking you have to do usually depends on how many groups you teach and how often the students are assessed. It is always worth giving useful, detailed and positive feedback to students on how to improve, even if you find it time-consuming. Then when students seek you out for feedback, you can ask them if they have read your comments first. If they haven’t, ask them to come back another time.
Answering email queries from students can take a lot of time, particularly before an assessment is due in. Most institutions/schools have an accepted approach to what tutors can and cannot help with in advance of student submission of work and you are strongly advised to find out what that approach is before you give help. The last thing the programme leader wants to get is complaints from the other students that you helped some, but not others.
Many law schools have staff and/or student handbooks which are distributed in hardcopy or are available electronically. As hard as your first year of teaching is (and it is), it is always worth reading the rules and regulations so lines are not crossed and working life is as stress-free as possible.
My contractual commitments also include administrative responsibilities. These are numerous and at times can be onerous. As well as staff meetings, boards of examiners, special situations/circumstances panels, a law teacher will often be asked to contribute a written report on their module for the departmental yearly review of programmes.
Staff may also be asked to or may have to, participate in admissions, attend open days and other recruitment fairs, as well as give pastoral or career advice to their individual tutees. Then there’s the significant task of staying up-to-date in your chosen specialisms, as well as attending staff development sessions or conferences.
Time for research (as opposed to scholarly updating within specialisms) is usually taken from the overall contractual teaching load by way of remission. More experienced researchers tend to get a larger remission than a “novice” researcher who could have 12 or 14 hours’ tutoring as well (and if you add preparation and marking time to that, it is a reasonably heavy work load). That means novice researchers who wish to develop an active research profile usually have to find time at evenings or weekends.
Research is advantageous in itself as well as being a career route within education; it helps you understand the law better and makes you a better academic. Comparative research helps you understand other cultures and systems, and those observations and reflections can change the way you think. You might even make proposals that could change the law.
Reading, thinking, writing, drafting and editing always take longer than you think it will. Submitting articles for publication is a nervous time and a rejection can be taken all too personally, but if it happens, ask for feedback and work on your articles to improve them (and try another publisher).
Some law tutors are also involved in mentoring. This could be a more experienced teacher mentoring a new colleague (or perhaps during an educational course such as the Post-Graduate Certificate in Higher Education, which some institutions insist new teachers obtain over their first few years of teaching) or supervising students doing projects at undergraduate, Masters or even PhD level.
There is huge variety in a teaching job. I would suggest time management is a vital characteristic of a good teacher given there are immediate and urgent, middle-term and long-term priorities, and you can never plan for the unexpected. Every day is different, but most days are great. Teaching is a calling, it is a vocation, and you have to love it. If you do, it is a very rewarding job.
Association of Law Teachers at www.lawteacher.ac.uk
Society of Legal Scholars at www.legalscholars.ac.uk
Socio-Legal Studies Association at www.slsa.ac.uk
UK Centre for Legal Education at www.ukcle.ac.uk