Teaching at HSE: Challenges and Opportunities
Adapting to a new university environment can be a difficult process, especially with such a thing as teaching classes, where not only teacher’s own abilities but also formal requirements and the academic culture of the institution come into play. In previous issues of The HSE Look (October 2015, May 2014, September 2013) we covered different aspects of teaching at HSE, such as the module system, assessment regulations, syllabus design, finding teaching assistants and using electronic Learning Management System.
However, summary of the regulations should be supplemented by advice from those international faculty members who have been at HSE for a considerable time and learned what requires specific attention from the teacher. The HSE Look is grateful to all the participants of the workshop on teaching, which took place on November 9th, 2016, and especially to its major speakers, Stefan Hessbrüggen-Walter, Assistant Professor at the School of Philosophy, and Michael Rochlitz, Assistant Professor at the School of Political Science. While everyone’s approach to teaching varies, Stefan and Michael emphasized certain aspects and practical recommendations which are useful to keep in mind while designing your individual teaching strategy at HSE.
Ask yourself what the degree your students will receive should qualify them to do; work backwards from that in order to determine which topics are essential and which might be optional for your course, depending on what programme your students are attending. For graduate students I think that everyone who gets graded 8 out of 10 should be qualified to enter one of top 10 PhD programme in the Western university in your field.
Communicating with your department and the study office
You should try to get to know the teaching situation of your colleagues, as they have a high teaching load, and also need to produce quality research. I suggest that you try to make yourself available for colleagues and students and take on tasks that you can reasonably do to make their lives easier: make yourself available for consultations with students, both about your course and about study abroad and career opportunities; be open to providing recommendations for their nominations; make your connections at other universities useful for your department.
When your class ends and your grade the final papers for the exam, I strongly urge you to give the marks to the relevant study office on time, which is usually within 1 day for oral exams and within 3 days for written exams. Otherwise, they cannot transfer the students to the next semester, and it could cause problems for them.
Communicating with students
Usually I send the students a list of course literature and some specific articles relating to their research. I try to have at least two or three e-mail exchanges with each student, sending a follow-up letter around three weeks after the first, to check the progress of their term paper and help with it. For example, in 2014 we had many detailed and thoughtful conversations about their term papers and current research issues in the political science. The activity of the students varies from year to year, though, and I’ve discovered that this year the group was not so engaged, as in two previous years, despite me using similar teaching methods and contacting them.
Engagement of students in class
To enhance the participation of students me and my colleague from the U.S., Peter Rutland from the Wesleyan University, organized a videoconference. He has a class of American students who study Russian politics, and I have my HSE students who study politics in general. Each of the groups can ask a question, and one of the students from the other class answers, and it’s been very useful as a way to stimulate discussions. I also find it useful to invite guest speakers to the classes. I have two German friends who work as journalists in Moscow, for Spiegel and Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, and I invited them to the class where we were discussing the media and censorship, to make it more lively and challenging.
Classroom space is very much teacher-centered. Imagine being a student who sits in the last row and trying to engage in direct communication someone who sits three rows away. It makes engaging a classroom more challenging that what you are possibly used to at your previous universities in the West.
I teach Philosophy, and it is a compulsory subject for all undergraduate students, so I get to teach students who major in all sorts of other disciplines, from Political Science to Computer Science.
When I came to HSE, I had about 10 years of teaching experience, but teaching in a foreign culture is a challenge, and I want to tell you more about my experience being one of the first foreign teachers at my department.
We aim not only to give the students knowledge but also to develop their competencies, and for that you need to gain their trust and they need to know what to expect from you. It helps if you do not take yourself as too important, if you have a sense of humor, and it simply takes patience. You may encounter that students often expect a rather teacher-centered class, with the lectures as a predominant format. I try to find a compromise between the teacher-centered and student participation-centered styles of teaching. Due to various reasons, your class may not be a priority for the students, and I try to structure my classes so that they have an individual task to prepare and present at the seminar. I expect them to know the material of the syllabus for the exam, and to prepare their individual task, and I get good quality work even from the students who were not attending 100% of the classes.
One of the questions for the workshop was about how to get feedback from the students. There is a university-wide assessment of teaching done after the course, and you can contact Lidiia Kamaldinova from the Centre for Institutional Research, and she’ll send your results. The problem I had with this official feedback is that it does not tell you much; the students are asked to rate from 1 to 5 how accessible was the teacher, how well the class was taught, how interesting the material, etc. However, you cannot see the thinking that went into the students’ assessments, and you cannot compare with other people. So I like to get some feedback of my own: I use Google forms and ask students to fill them in, or I give out printed forms.
You can also see the results of the official rating through your personal page interface. It is important to have a look at these numbers, whether they reflect your part of the course only or the whole, because your Chair and your Dean will see them as well.
Designing your own course
One of the questions I was asked is how to organize and implement your own courses. It differs from faculty to faculty and from department to department: for example, I could pretty much determine the content of my course, and I filled it with a lot of things which I think would be useful and interesting for the students. My goal is to get the students acquainted with the most interesting papers from different fields and to get them motivated to carry out research of their own. One of my objectives is to support participation of students in research projects: for example, with several students we gathered data, analyzed it and wrote a paper which is awaiting publication. Another tool for engagement in research is that my course requires a term paper, and there is a list of suggested topics but students are encouraged to propose their own topics.
Speaking about the course structure, I incorporate small revision sessions regularly, so that we talk again about the most important concepts, and by the end of the course everyone usually has answered at least once.
There are over 10 Master’s programmes at HSE which are taught fully in English, and they are often looking to diversify their elective courses. If you are looking for a new course to teach, provided that you fulfil teaching obligations at your department, I suggest you contact these Master programmes and offer them your syllabus; it’s even better if at least two programmes can find your course useful, as it increases the chance that enough students choose your course. Mind that the courses for the next year need to be agreed in mid-November, so it’s best to start thinking about it in advance.
There are also university-wide electives, and you can try to suggest your course for the competition next year. I would recommend to first have a look which courses are already offered by your department and how popular they are before you invest too much effort in this.
As you know from your contract, you have teaching obligations, but the emphasis is put on your research. I choose to warn students about certain boundaries: that I may not be able to reply to an e-mail within 24 hours, that I might need to reschedule classes because I am going away for a conference, etc. It is very easy to try to be perfect at teaching an invest a full day into creating an ultimate PowerPoint presentation, and my advice is - do not do that. Get involved in teaching, but do not go overboard with it.