The Training and Support Needs of Graduate Teaching Assistants in English

Dr Siobhán Holland, LTSN English Subject Centre

Many academics in English will have had their first teaching experiences while they were postgraduate students working as graduate teaching assistants (GTAs) in the departments where they were completing their doctoral studies. Faced, for the first time, with the challenge of balancing research and teaching, GTAs have often relished their first opportunities to communicate complex research ideas to new undergraduates and graduate teaching experiences have offered a kind of apprenticeship for a career in academia. In recent years though, the role of postgraduates who teach has changed. They work in an increasingly professionalised academic environment in which they must encourage ‘independent’ or ‘active learning’ among an increasingly diverse student body while satisfying ‘learning outcomes’ and meeting ‘assessment criteria’. They deliver a greater proportion of teaching in English departments than ever before and yet they are less likely than their predecessors to ‘graduate’ to full-time academic posts. While some will become academics, others will craft a career from part-time appointments and still others will use their graduate teaching experiences to highlight to employers skills other than those needed to research and teach.

The needs and responsibilities of tutors who teach on a part-time basis in HE are increasingly to the forefront of policy debates. As Richard Blackwell notes,

Part time teaching and teachers have assumed an increasing profile in policy circles. The sheer amount of part time teaching, the extension of the legal rights of part time teachers, campaigns against casualisation by Trades Unions and concerns about ‘quality’ have mobilized a range of stakeholder interests. The staffing implications of the Government’s widening participation agenda and target for 2010, apparently overlooked in the policy formation process, (estimated to be a requirement for an extra 17000 FTE staff by Universities UK) are helping to concentrate minds too.(1)

Given the increasing professionalisation of, and pressures on, graduate teaching assistants and their departmental employers, the English Subject Centre has sought to develop a clearer understanding of the training and support needs generated by postgraduate teaching in our discipline. The English Subject Centre, part of the Learning and Teaching Support Network (LTSN), exists to support the development of teaching and learning in departments which teach English and associated disciplines such as Language and Creative Writing.(2) One of its key priorities is to provide support for tutors in their first teaching roles and the Centre is working to help both individual tutors and the departments that provide them with teaching contracts. This article outlines the specific issues facing GTAs who teach on English Literature programmes. It suggests strategies for use by English departments which are looking to improve their provision for postgraduates who teach. It also discusses the prototype training module for GTAs in English which was developed by the English Subject Centre in collaboration with the English department and Staff Development Unit at the University of Birmingham.

In the broader community of people who teach on a part-time basis in HE, graduate teaching assistants in English departments are a relatively privileged group. They are already embedded in a department’s culture and they are likely to have knowledge of its approach to subject debates and insight into its pedagogical approach. They will be familiar with some administrative procedures and have access to the library, email and internet facilities. The department will be aware of the tutor’s research specialism and so teaching responsibilities will often be of relevance to this area of expertise. Of course, GTAs in English departments can expect to become involved, often for the first time, in teaching ‘outside their area’ on courses with a generic, survey or introductory function. Most English programmes include genre-based or ‘theory’ courses at level one and postgraduate tutors often deliver seminars on these modules. Still, GTAs are likely to know other members of the team teaching the module or modules to which they have been assigned and will often have opportunities to contact these other tutors during the teaching year. A further advantage is available to the GTA who begins to teach in an English department which has a substantial cohort of doctoral students. He or she will embark on teaching as part of a broader group of new part-time tutors and in large departments there are opportunities for GTAs to benefit from a substantial amount of peer support.

There are, however, potential difficulties for GTAs who effectively have a dual status in departments where they work as both students and tutors. GTAs often find that problems arise where undergraduates are encouraged to see them as less qualified than other staff. Procedural practices can also suggest to students that GTAs are not taken seriously as members of faculty. For example, a student may not be able to find their tutor listed in the module handbook, the tutor may not have a pigeonhole for post or is omitted from the departmental website. These problems are easily rectified. The English department at Keele, for example, includes pictures of and contact details for its GTA staff on its website, flagging their status as graduate students but clearly indicating that they are respected members of the department’s teaching team.

Although there are examples of good practice, problems can still arise where departments make familiar and complacent assumptions about the well-being of GTAs in English. The promising conditions in which they begin teaching can help departments to provide them with the best possible kinds of training and support, but, first, full-time lecturers may need to surrender some of the romanticised concepts that still surround the graduate teaching experience in our discipline. The popular perception of postgraduate teaching as a kind of ‘apprenticeship’ is open to abuse. It encourages lecturers to think of responsibilities offered to GTAs as—in the language of professionalised academia—‘opportunities’ for which they should grateful. GTAs are often expected to provide unpaid office hours or give occasional lectures on this basis, whether or not they plan to proceed to an academic career. The widespread perception of the relationship between the part-time lecturer and her host department as one based on benevolent patronage can be misleading. One tutor explained to the English Subject Centre that ‘Full-timers often see part-time work as a “rites of passage” thing and are not overly sympathetic’. The patronage model of graduate teaching is complicated further by the assumption, prevalent in English departments, that the transition from student to teacher is a natural, instinctive process. This assumption, (fostered perhaps by the discursive nature of English literature teaching and evidenced by the lack of training programmes made available to part-time tutors in English departments) would be easily unpicked by a bright second-year undergraduate in English after a GTA-led seminar on Foucault.

Where training for GTAs who teach English literature is provided it tends to be set up on either an institutional, departmental or peer support basis and although each of these models has advantages, where they are implemented separately from each other, they can be as problematic as no training at all. An increasing number of institutions are requiring their postgraduate teachers to complete formal courses on teaching in HE which lead to the award of a Postgraduate Certificate of Higher Education (PGCHE) or associate membership of the Institute of Learning and Teaching (ILT). These formal courses are usually offered by Staff Development Units and tend to be made up of generic, centrally-run modules. They usefully introduce students to issues such as course design and assessment strategies but are often regarded with little enthusiasm by English graduates. The term ‘generic’ implies that the teaching and learning strategies discussed on these courses are likely to appear equally valid to GTAs across subject disciplines. In reality, the term refers to training materials which draw on a body of pedagogical research which has its provenance in varieties of ‘social science’ discourse to which graduates of English programmes are likely to be hostile. For GTAs in English the kind of ‘one size fits all’ material used on formal training courses can seem prone to, at best over-generalised, behaviourist assumptions about learning and teaching.

While generic courses for GTAs are increasingly sophisticated and sensitive to disciplinary differences, problems can arise if training does not offer the kinds of immediate practical support needed by the new tutor grappling with, for example, how to teach long 19th-century novels within the limits of 50-minute seminar slots. Graduate teaching assistants in English stress how much they value opportunities to explore issues encountered in specific teaching situations. They may wish to discuss, with experienced lecturers and their peers, strategies for responding to students’ racist or sexist comments about a text or share ways of dealing with students who dominate group discussions. They might want to identify ways of integrating literary theory into textual discussions, or investigate strategies for encouraging debate about ‘difficult’ literary texts. Many GTAs in English have to teach T. S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ on courses which offer ‘literary surveys’ to first year students, for example, and—like many of their more experienced colleagues—find that this is not a simple task.

While generic courses offer little help with these kinds of problems, the answer to the training needs of GTAs does not lie solely in the provision of support mechanisms at departmental level. Research suggests that ‘Part timers appear to value highly informal support and feedback by full-time staff (mentoring, developmental observation of teaching) and discipline-based, peer frameworks (e.g. teaching circles or discussion groups)’(3) and discussions with a departmental mentor might well reflect helpfully on new tutors’ recent memories of being taught themselves. They will also draw on the knowledge and experience accrued by senior colleagues in the discipline. However, several factors mitigate against these discussions fulfilling their ideal role in the development of the individual graduate teacher. Firstly, many GTAs will be mentored by their research supervisor who is also likely to be the source of their first job reference. This encourages the GTA to conceal any difficulties he is experiencing with teaching. Secondly, even where the discussions between mentor and mentee are genuinely open, it can be easy for these meetings to become overly comfortable fora for the re-iteration, rather than questioning, of prevalent teaching methods. Thirdly, informal subject-based forms of support are likely to work most effectively where they can draw on a rich subject-based discourse and national debate about pedagogy. While GTAs who are starting to teach Creative Writing courses are likely to benefit from the currency of healthy debates in Creative Writing circles about writing in education, their colleagues who teach literature will find that there are few pedagogic resources to support them from a disciplinary perspective.(4) The lack of these resources in our discipline has much to do with the afore-mentioned healthy scepticism about behaviourist constructions of teaching prevalent in ‘generic’ pedagogies, but in their absence, informal methods of support for GTAs at department level are likely to be inadequate.

The benefits for GTAs who have positive experiences of staff training are, in the short- and Iong-term, considerable and effective training for graduate teaching assistants will pay dividends for disciplinary practice. Those tutors who plan to have long-term careers as academics in their disciplines and who are supported and given multiple frameworks in which to build and progress their own teaching methods at the outset of their teaching experience are the most likely to develop versatile, informed and relevant teaching models throughout their careers. Even if GTAs are planning careers outside academia, the training they receive will have the virtue of being immediately relevant to the teaching for which they are currently contracted. It will also help them to identify skills they can market to employers outside Higher Education.

In a bid to explore the potential of a combined generic and subject-specific approach to the training needs of postgraduate teachers in our discipline, the English Subject Centre became involved in 2001 in the development of a prototype training module for GTAs in the School of English at the University of Birmingham. The project arose out of discussions conducted in a focus group on part-time teaching which was co-ordinated by the LTSN Generic Centre and the Higher Education Staff Development Association (HESDA). Research into American ‘Preparing Future Faculty’ programmes has shown that ‘GTA professional development programmes, are most successful when there is a strong department and central faculty/staff development Centre link’ [sic].(5) The focus group wished to explore the possibility of developing training materials which would be tailored to the specific needs of part-time tutors dealing with their own disciplinary needs and practices. It also wanted to tackle directly ways of developing staff development materials for a traditionally resistant subject discipline. A number of staff development officers from institutions involved in the focus group suggested that to provide training of any sort for staff from humanities disciplines was difficult but that to cater for lecturers from English departments was particularly awkward. Graduate teaching assistants in English who are expected to ‘teach and train’ at the same time, who complete courses under obligation rather than by choice, and are likely to find the disjunction between their discipline’s discursive practices and those of ‘learning and teaching’ extreme, are a complicated group to support.

A project team was established which comprised Ros McCulloch from the Staff Development Unit at the University of Birmingham (Ros was the co-ordinator of the DOPLA project which developed an inter-university training course for postgraduate tutors of foreign languages), Dr Siobhán Holland of the LTSN English Subject Centre and Dr Betty Hagglund, a lecturer then on a 0.5 temporary contract in the English department at the University of Birmingham who had postgraduate teaching experience there as well as experience of working as a part-time tutor at the University of Central England. We aimed to identify strategies which would meet the needs of GTAs in English without rendering them allergic to future forms of staff development. In designing our module, we set out to provide initial training which would draw on generic and subject-specific ideas. We anticipate that the training module we developed will be delivered to tutors who share disciplinary expectations about the nature of knowledge and its acquisition and that they will have the opportunity to discuss, with relevant colleagues, generic materials and subject-specific assumptions at the point of need. Informing our work was the belief that the introduction of subject-specific concerns, examples and discussions into training programmes would sophisticate teaching in the discipline and encourage tutors in English to confer on teaching problems the same attention and respectability that they confer on problematic issues in their research.

The course sessions, which can be accessed from the English Subject Centre website, have been designed to be distributed across the first semester in which a GTA teaches.(6) Issues raised in initial preparatory sessions are returned to after some teaching experience has been gained, and issues such as assessment are raised ‘at the point of need’, after tutors have developed some sense of the relationship between course aims and student achievement.

Session One

From Student to Tutor

The experience of having been an undergraduate student will always be crucial to the GTA in English, but any training course needs to encourage critical reflection on that experience. At the outset of the first training session on the Birmingham module, GTAs are asked to think about the teaching style which most inspired them when they were undergraduates. The discussion of the group’s positive experiences helps to set benchmarks for the standards that GTAs want to establish for themselves as tutors and it draws attention to the variety of teaching methods that are used to deliver literature programmes. But the exercise also opens up space for a discussion about GTAs as learners themselves and encourages them to consider their a-typicality. When I have offered brief discussion sessions for new tutors at English Subject Centre events, graduate teaching assistants have made it clear that they are most likely to identify successful teaching techniques by reviewing their own experience as learners. Yet GTAs are far from typical. A small proportion of undergraduates go on to postgraduate study, and the techniques to which they respond may well be ones that are less helpful to students who are experiencing greater difficulty in their studies. As the pressure on departments to widen participation increases, it will be ever more problematic for undergraduates to be taught by GTAs who are making use of techniques that work best for a privileged elite.

On the three occasions when I have asked GTAs to reflect on their own learning, participants have engaged with the debate about positive teaching and learning experiences most fully at the point when they have been asked to reflect on how other students on their programme responded to the teaching methods they perceived to be excellent. The effect of the exercise, which we might call ‘Death of the Seminar Tutor’, is that it invites GTAs to think about the diverse responses that undergraduates will have to well-meant teaching techniques. It succeeds in part because it resonates with the GTA’s subject-based intuition that the tutor will be unable to control the ways in which his actions are interpreted or understood. As the opening exercise of a training module it helps to engage GTAs in English with teaching as a complex problematic.

Session Two

How Students Learn

Having introduced the notion that students will respond differently to a tutor’s teaching methods, and that those methods might succeed or fail for different students in the same tutor group, the training module then invites GTAs to engage with theories about how students learn and in particular with the differences between ‘surface’ and ‘deep’ approaches to learning. In designing the Birmingham module we made use of training materials (discussions, handouts and OHPs) written for the Birmingham-based DOPLA training programme for GTAs in modern languages.(7) The DOPLA materials, which were designed with the needs of humanities postgraduates in mind, introduce ideas from pedagogical research with a light touch. Graduates of English programmes are likely to be sceptical about the kinds of terms the materials introduce but they provide a practical basis on which the GTAs can work as they collaborate on their first seminar planning exercise. In a whole-group discussion, GTAs are invited to share ideas for inclusion in a seminar plan for use with James Joyce’s ‘The Dead’ (chosen for its availability in the ubiquitous Norton Anthology of English Literature).

The generic insights the module offers to support this exercise provide much-needed practical advice. GTAs at Goldsmiths, who trialled some of the course materials, spoke positively about the opportunity that exercises like this gave them to ‘share “safely”’ their ideas about teaching. Graduates of English might want to question ideas about ‘scaffolded’ or ‘incremental’ learning, but in the context of a training module which draws on subject-based as well as generic insights, their introduction can at least provide the grounds for a discussion about what disciplinary insights can stand in place of, or supplement, the insights of pedagogical theory. Generic insights can be used productively to generate debates about what constitutes knowledge and about the ways in which students engage with the discursive frameworks to which their programmes introduce them. Meanwhile, ideas encountered in graduate studies about power, knowledge and communicative competence might well be mobilised, by a discipline-based session leader, to encourage graduate teaching assistants to make productive connections between research and teaching practice.

Session Three

Seminar Design: Teaching and Learning with Browning

One of the key issues facing the GTA who is teaching English literature for the first time is seminar design.

In the first ‘subject-specific’ session of the module, GTAs are invited to design a seminar with their insights about student learning styles in mind. Seminar design is a complex art in a discursive discipline. Whereas lab experiments can be designed with some confidence, no plan will predict in advance the directions in which a seminar conversation will develop. Any seminar plan for English that sets out to constrain discussion will, arguably, be counterproductive. Nevertheless, it can be valuable for English tutors to plan seminars because the process helps them both to anticipate in advance areas of difficulty that might emerge in a discussion and to develop strategies for responding to them. It provides GTAs with resources they can adapt in future. Also, crucially, it gives them opportunities to explore the relationship between the issues raised by the curriculum and the student experience of it. The exercise also facilitates public discussion of what remains an essentially private sphere of the discipline.

The seminar is the most frequently used teaching format in English programmes but while other tutors may attend our lectures, we are likely only to enter another lecturer’s seminar space if we are compelled to do so as part of an institutional peer review scheme. Most of us are careful to ensure that the last student in closes the door in case our ‘techniques’ are overheard by our colleagues. This means that for the GTA, opportunities for developing strategies for seminar situations are limited. There are of course different issues at play in seminars on different kinds of texts and GTAs in different institutions will have very varied levels of guidance on how to organise a seminar series. A GTA in one English department may be asked to ‘teach any Hardy novel’ alongside a ‘general’ nineteenth-century-based lecture programme and will have to decide how many weeks to dedicate to the task whereas in another department the lecturer would provide her with a précis of a text-based lecture and a set of suggestions for seminar exercises. Institutional variations are complicated further by issues raised by specific texts or genres. The GTA who is teaching George Eliot’s Middlemarch will have to make decisions about how to encourage close reading and a broad understanding of the novel and the problems of scale she identifies will be opposite but equal to those she faces later in the semester when she teaches Blake’s ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’ for the first time.

When we were designing the Birmingham module we realised that it would be impossible to derive a seminar design task that would be ‘representative.’ We chose instead to set a task based on a poem which GTAs could easily read in advance of the session. The task is constructed around Robert Browning’s ‘My Last Duchess’, a poem that often appears on level one survey courses as well as on nineteenth-century literature modules. The poem is generally agreed to be ‘teachable’ by people without expertise in nineteenth-century poetry. It can be introduced to students without the need for substantial amounts of contextual material and its strong narrative focus means that it will generally appeal even to those students who have developed anxieties at ‘A level’ about how to comment on poetry. GTAs are invited to read the poem in advance of the training workshop, and in the workshop itself they are provided with contextual material which relates not to the poem but instead to the characteristics of the students and the module to which their 50-minute seminar on Browning’s poem is expected to relate (see Appendix).

This exercise was tested with GTAs from the English department at Goldsmiths, University of London, and the responses of this committed group of researcher/tutors were instructive. What was immediately striking was the importance that GTAs attach to literary context when they tackle a seminar planning task. In the first instance, tutors were anxious that they lacked expertise in the study of Victorian poetry. As graduate researchers, GTAs are accustomed to discussing texts in relation to extraordinary levels of contemporary and/or theoretical paratextual material. It can be difficult then for them to embark confidently on teaching ‘outside their area’ and to develop teaching techniques for the kinds of non-specialist modules often offered to them for their first teaching experiences. Some GTAs in the Goldsmiths group had been teaching for some time and had learnt firstly, that students were unlikely to challenge their expertise and secondly, that focusing on detailed context would not necessarily help students to meet the learning outcomes of a survey-style module. But GTAs who had just begun to teach explained that they were devoting extraordinary amounts of time to researching the background to texts that they would be teaching for one week only and would be unlikely to encounter more than once again even if they pursued academic careers.

The ‘Teaching and Learning with Browning’ exercise is useful not least because it draws attention to the issue of how to manage literary context in the seminar situation. It also introduces GTAs to the need for them to engage with the role that their module plays in a degree programme and the stage that their students are at in their undergraduate studies. Planning a seminar with these constraints in mind can help the GTA to manage their preparation time efficiently. Of course, the level of detail provided in the task worksheet about the module on which Browning’s poem will be taught represents another wealth of contextual material. Neither the possible teaching and learning, nor the literary contexts, can be resolved in the plan for a single seminar. However, a discussion about the responsibilities with which the individual seminar is freighted can, in the supportive environment of a workshop, help GTAs to explore ways of doing justice to texts, programmes and students over the duration of a seminar series.

Session Four

Teaching Skills

After planning their seminars and spending some time reflecting on their plans, GTAs are invited to present their seminar outlines to a plenary discussion in which they have the opportunity to consider alternative strategies for responding to the teaching challenge. The discussion that the planning session provokes should provide opportunities for GTAs to air anxieties about how to manage context and their own expertise. However, difficulties for GTAs will not all relate to course content. The skills involved in asking useful questions of students and listening carefully to their responses are quite different to those required by the research activities in which the GTA is otherwise involved. Again, the materials from the DOPLA module are helpful here as GTAs are encouraged to draw on insights from pedagogical research into the nature of seminar or workshop teaching. Materials from the DOPLA module on ‘Small Group Teaching’ introduce GTAs to techniques such as active listening and the handout that accompanies the session advises the tutor to, among other things,

                Hold your fire

                — by suspending judgement

                — by not responding too quickly

                — by allowing silences

                Express understanding

                — by reflecting back key phrases

                — by showing empathy


                — interrupt or show impatience

                — jump to conclusions

                — give advice


                — to keep an open mind

                — to recognise your own blind spots and prejudices

                — to be responsive more than initiating (8)

While some of this advice is fairly anodyne, the issues that the module element raises about how to pitch material and make use of questions in seminar situations are valuable. Before the session closes, GTAs are asked to explore some of the difficulties that will inevitably arise even if they are scrupulously careful in their use of questioning and listening techniques. A discussion about ‘problem participants’ in seminar situations, based again on DOPLA materials, gives GTAs permission to discuss issues such as how to deal with silent, aggressive or ‘know-it-all’ students. And it is this kind of practical information that really shows the benefits of training which allows for the discussion of difficulty in teaching situations. The tutors at Goldsmiths who trialled the materials, found the opportunity offered here for them to explore some of the practical issues involved in seminar delivery particularly welcome (One of the questions they raised was ‘What do you do if you are asked in which year Victoria ascended the throne and you don’t know? How can you answer honestly and retain the respect of your students?’) These practical problems, crucial in the teaching and learning of a discursive discipline, are often brushed over in informal departmental mentoring structures because GTAs worry about drawing attention to their lack of expertise. The training workshop provides tutors with an opportunity to discuss these matters with their peers, to consider them before they start to teach and to arm themselves with strategies drawn from pedagogical research into those group dynamics which are, after all, not unique to seminars on English programmes.

Session Five

Assessment Issues

The importance of ring-fencing opportunities for the discussion of teaching issues is highlighted by the difficulties that often arise for postgraduate tutors when they set out to mark their first batch of undergraduate essays or encounter exam marking for the first time. This section of the GTA training programme is designed for delivery at a point in the semester when GTAs have already taught some seminars and have started to focus on assessment tasks with their students. Problems around assessment in our discipline usually have little to do with the ‘part-time’ nature of the marker’s contract or with the level of prior teaching experience. Instead, they correlate with a lack of training and support for both part-time and full-time lecturing staff. However, these problems can seem more acute to the tutor who has not yet established strategies for marking. Research demonstrates that the provision of training before a module begins represents the most reliable means of ensuring consistency in assessment practice and it is notable that the Open University—the largest employer of part-time tutors—provides new tutors with detailed guidance on how to mark. Guidance and training is delivered in advance of the marking process and all assignments are sampled for monitoring purposes in the first two years, so that training is incorporated into practice. It is likely that the provision of training for GTAs and the prominence of assessment issues in a non-judgemental mentoring process will help to prevent difficulties arising at assessment time.

As a sizeable number of GTAs will continue into academic careers in English, training provided at the outset of their teaching experience will also contribute to the sophistication of marking procedures across the discipline. For the new tutor, marking is often thought about only in terms of the production of a verifiable mark and the tutor’s concern is to establish themselves as a credible assessor of work among their peers. A training exercise can support the tutor in their effort to win this kind of credibility, but it can also help to foreground the role that assessment and feedback play in student learning. The training exercise gives GTAs the opportunity to practise annotating essays. They are asked to experiment with drafting feedback as well as producing marks. The workshop is run using DOPLA materials supplemented by anonymised essays taken from a module with which the GTAs are likely to be familiar. The DOPLA materials introduce GTAs to debates about norm- and criterion-referenced systems of marking as well as to the role played for students by formative and summative assessment and feedback. The essays themselves help the group to investigate issues which arise primarily at subject level. When the materials were trialled at Goldsmiths, the GTAs debated the merits of essays which were rich in contextual detail as opposed to those which were coherent but less grounded in critical debates, for example.

At Goldsmiths, we also discussed the ways in which feedback had affected our own learning and this allowed us to return productively to discussions about seminar planning. GTAs who are marking essays for the first time are often able to use the assessed work they are presented with as a tool to help them identify ways of improving on their seminar style. So in the final training session of the GTA module, we return to our seminar plans and revise them for different students tackling the same text in the context of a different programme at a different stage in their academic careers. This exercise allows GTAs to share some of the experiences they have had during their first teaching semester and to disseminate best practice.


These exercises raise subject-based issues about how well we make connections between learning environments such as the seminar and students’ assessed work. They encourage tutors in English to consider and discuss how best to prepare students for the practical as well as ideological problems they face as they investigate the possibilities of their own critical voices. These issues might fruitfully be discussed at disciplinary level. It is worth noting that schemes for supporting GTAs work best where the need for full-time staff to engage in continuing professional development is also recognised. It is likely that training and support mechanisms will be most credible where the demands they make on GTAs are the same as, or similar to, those placed on full-time lecturers. At the moment GTAs are often treated differently to their full-time colleagues. In one English department, for example, a report on the marking habits of individual part-time tutors is circulated to all staff while full-time tutors are not subjected to the same level of critique and this well-meaning strategy produces an unnecessary degree of anxiety among tutors marking for the first time. It also means that the department in question misses out on the opportunity that training graduate tutors provides for improving debate about, and the practice of, teaching and learning across the board. At the University of Exeter, by contrast, full- time lecturers in the English department have participated in marking exercises alongside GTAs. This kind of exercise encourages debate about assessment practice, promotes consistency across a programme and helps graduate teaching assistants to develop a sophisticated understanding of departmental and disciplinary practices.

By signalling the inclusion of GTAs in its faculty, a department can help to avoid situations which undermine the part-time tutor in the eyes of the students they are teaching. A separation of any mentoring systems for teaching and research helpfully suggests that they are distinct and equal  priorities. Meanwhile, the creation of a safe space for the discussion of teaching issues, through the kind of training programme outlined here, establishes teaching as a complex problematic, worthy of careful attention. Too often, graduate teaching experiences instil in tutors a sense that teaching is more instinctual, automatic and less important than research. The inclusion of generic and subject-specific discourses alongside each other in GTA training modules can help to undermine this teaching/research binary. This approach potentially provides opportunities, particularly in the humanities, for tutors to use subject-specific knowledge and approaches to cast new light on generic teaching issues. Tutors in English for example, might want to develop strategies for enabling students by reflecting on concepts such as power, discourse and agency which are common currency in their research work.

In the long term the cross-fertilisation of ideas from the separate disciplines of ‘teaching and learning’ and English Studies may well produce some fruitful interdisciplinary research.  In the short term, the provision of training courses which are genuinely relevant to the GTA experience and appeal to the graduate teacher’s interest in complexity will help to cater for the specific needs of GTAs who represent an important part of our discipline’s current and future teaching constituency. It is often remarked that graduate teaching assistants are among the most dedicated and inspirational teachers our students encounter. Moves to include these enthusiastic tutors in detailed debates about the teaching of our discipline can only pay dividends for our students and the discipline itself.


Learning and Teaching with Browning’s ‘My Last Duchess’


Robert Browning’s ‘My Last Duchess’; Norton Anthology of English Literature (volume two); ‘Seminar Planning for New Tutors’(9)


You are teaching a seminar group of 20 students, who are studying a first-year, year-long module, ‘Texts and Contexts’ which introduces them to a range of texts from the Renaissance to the present. The course focuses on close reading and developing awareness of historical context and its role in reading and writing. Other courses in the first year are introducing students to ideas such as feminism and psychoanalysis. This seminar begins the second semester’s seminar series. The module as a whole is expected to equip students to make module choices later in their programme, and give students an opportunity to consider the ideas they are studying in relation to specific texts. The module criteria are listed as follows in the module handbook:

At the end of the ‘Texts and Contexts’ module you will be able to

  • Provide close readings of literary texts.

  • Select and make use of evidence.

  • Demonstrate an awareness of how genre and context affect writing and reading.

  • Refer to and comment on literary conventions.

  • Deploy contextual material (historical and abstract) to support arguments.

  • Develop articulate arguments in written and oral forms.

  • Explore the relationships between literary texts.

The Students:

They have recently read Wordsworth’s and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and some Tennyson poems, selected—as is the Browning poem—from the Norton Anthology of English Literature (the most recent edition available). In the next few weeks students will be reading Ruskin, Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Virginia Woolf’s ‘A Room of One’s Own’. Some of the students have studied First World War poetry at A-level, others have read Seamus Heaney’s work, and some have not written about poetry for a number of years before starting this module. You have one student with dyslexia in the group which also contains some highly-motivated mature students who have completed an Access course, and some eighteen-year olds with mixed A-level grades (excellent to fair).

They have been asked to read ‘My Last Duchess’ before the seminar. The lecturer has explained to you that she has used the lecture to introduce students to Victorian aesthetics and has drawn on the work of Ruskin and Pater. She has also alluded to Elizabeth Barrett Browning in some detail. You have been asked to focus on ‘My Last Duchess’ in the seminar, and you are about to write your plan. In passing, one of the more experienced tutors in the teaching team has warned you that the essays students write for this module tend to be fairly repetitive, and that students are prone to making unhelpful and stolid generalisations about ‘the Victorians.’ Meanwhile, the department’s part-time teaching co-ordinator has directed you to look at the English Subject Centre’s document on ‘Seminar Planning for New Tutors.’ The students are expected to write an essay at the end of the course which compares and contrasts two of the texts they have studied in seminars.


Devise a seminar plan for a 50 minute seminar, providing whatever level of detail you find appropriate.

Decide on aims and intended outcomes.

Try to anticipate possible difficulties and strategies for dealing with them.

Keep a record of aims, outcomes and strategies you reject in the design process.

Include any conditions you would make on student preparation for the seminar.

Bear in mind that you are not responsible for fulfilling the promises of a programme or the needs of all of the students in a single seminar. Choose the concerns you are going to concentrate on in this seminar carefully.


1 Richard Blackwell, ‘Enhancing the Role and Contribution of Part time Teachers in HE’, included in the forthcoming English Subject Centre Good Practice Guide: Part-Time Teaching. For further details see

2 The English Subject Centre’s website is at As well as providing online resources for academics in English and related disciplines, the Subject Centre produces reports and responds to enquiries.

3 Colin Bryson and Richard Blackwell, ‘Quality Issues surrounding the Employment, Support and Development of Hourly Paid Part-Time Teachers (PTTs) in HE: A Discussion Paper’,, pp.1-13, p.8, para. 2.

4 The debate about Creative Writing pedagogies is vibrant. A good point of access to it is via the National Association of Writers in Education which hosts a website at and produces a journal on Writing in Education.

5 D’Andrea, Vaneeta-Marie, ‘Professional Development of  Graduate Teaching Assistants (GTAs) in the USA’,  pp. 1-12. p. 3, para. 4. For details of the ‘Preparing Future Faculty’ initiative, see

6 We suggest that the module could be delivered as a two-day induction course which would be supplemented at a later date by a third staff development day. We expect that the course will provide GTAs with their first but not sole encounter with formalised discussions about teaching and learning.

7 The DOPLA materials can be accessed at and the exercises used in this module can also be reached via the English Subject Centre’s web page on this topic.

8 DOPLA Module 2 – Small Group Teaching, p. 54. The guidelines are derived from S. Griffith and P. Partington, Effective Learning and Teaching in Higher Education — Enabling Active Learning in Small Groups, Module Five from Part 3, (Sheffield: CVCP, 1992

9 ‘Seminar Planning for New Tutors’ is a discursive document, developed by the English Subject Centre to support new tutors in English. It is available in the ‘Part-Time Teaching’ section of our website at and it is suitable for distribution to part-time and full-time staff. Feedback is welcome and should be directed to the English Subject Centre at