Module Conveners and the British Job Market

As an undergraduate, I didn’t take many large survey classes, and apart from one class, even the surveys that I took were taught by one faculty member. Larger U.S. universities do have more survey classes (I know, because I was a TA for several of them), but most that I taught on were also taught by one person. That model seems to be less usual in the United Kingdom, so I thought I’d talk about monster team-taught classes, the role of convener in bringing (and then holding) these classes together, and what you need to know about them if you’re considering  the British job market.[1]

I’ve taught in England and Wales by this point, and while other academics’ experiences in these countries might be different (and vary from Russell Group to Redbrick to Oxbridge), the monster team-taught class seems more common than it is in the United States.[2] These monster classes (modules, in Brit-speak) have several purposes. First, because the degree is shorter, they provide an opportunity for students to see lots of different faculty members lecture, getting a taste for the styles they might prefer in future (and often, more flexible) years of the degree. Second, because in both of the departments I’ve worked in, enrollment in history has increased, these big classes provide a less-than-ideal, but more workable way to share workload evenly—at least when it comes to first-year teaching. Third, because there’s a general sense that students benefit from an introductory class (or classes) that emphasizes the skills they need to learn for future years in the degree. As in the U.S., there’s a wide divergence between pre- and post-secondary approaches to studying history.

So the model for this module looks something like this: a semester or year-long class, meeting once or twice a week for lectures, and once a week for seminars. Different members of faculty give the lectures each week, but students retain the same seminar teacher (otherwise called a “tutor”) throughout the semester/year. Ideally, this seminar tutor is also the student’s adviser (otherwise called a “personal tutor” who is responsible for providing “pastoral care”). These classes are often very broad geographically and chronologically, and they use content as a means to an end to teach skills. You can expect that they’ve been reformed, rethought, and reorganized at least once every five years. You can also expect, as a result of this tendency towards reform, that the various moving pieces of the class require a lot of work to hold them all together as one or several pieces become outdated simultaneously.

Enter the convener. The convener has many jobs, including, but not limited to:

  • Editing or writing the British syllabus—for these modules, you can expect them to consist of 40-60 pages of detailed schedules, reading lists, lecture, and seminar descriptions.
  • Working with the library to digitize relevant required reading lists provided by each week’s lecturer, and checking the online platform to make sure that previous years’ readings have migrated successfully.
  • Figuring out who is willing to give a lecture, asking them to do it, working it into the syllabus, aligning that lecture with the week’s seminar and seminar reading, and making sure that that member of staff remembers to turn up and lecture at the appointed time.
  • Figuring out who is responsible for teaching a seminar group each week, compiling a list of their teaching availability and preferences, and working with timetabling/scheduling offices to book rooms for the relevant weeks of teaching.
  • Making sure the 200+ students know when lectures will be held, accommodating learning disabled students by providing advance access to slides and outlines (and chasing the lecturers who have not yet uploaded them/arranging lecturers’ access to the online learning platform), making sure all students have a seminar group, and reminding students of upcoming assessment deadlines.
  • Responding to the emails of these 200+ students, when seminar tutors are unable to provide answers—this happens early in the semester, before students have been allocated into seminar groups, and again when assignments are almost due.
  • Reading the information on required online learning platforms, making sure nothing is wrong or outdated, and updating relevant style guides, assessment briefs, online test questions and answers, and contact information.
  • Arranging cover of seminars when seminar leaders fall ill, or go on paternity or maternity leave.

In my department, convening a monster module is one of my service (also known as “admin.”) roles for the year. The learning curve has been very steep, but I’ve learned a lot, and quickly. Here are some additional skills you might highlight if you’re interested in applying for British jobs:

  • Your ability to lecture on these modules. Take a look at a department’s Year 1 offerings, try and figure out which classes are core, and suggest which ones you could offer lectures for.
  • Your ability to work as a team. These are often easy modules to teach, because someone has gone through and compiled a list of crib notes for new tutors. The content can be a slog, and it’s always hard to teach skills. If you have experience as a TA, this is where you might draw connections. If you can TA for a big survey class, you can definitely take a seminar group (or two) for these sorts of classes.
  • Your ability to provide pastoral care. If you have experience in student advising, you’ll be well-positioned to help first-year students transition into university. The seminars for these modules are about content, but they’re also about reminding students of the value of office hours, and of advance planning for assessment.

Readers, are there any other aspects of convening a module that I’ve left out? Please weigh in in the comments.


[1] There’s a pro/con table to be made of U.S. and U.K. academic jobs right now, with lots of references to Brexit and guns in U.S. classrooms, but I am TIRED, team.

[2] Alice Kelly has written a good recent overview of the types of universities in the U.K. See https://theprofessorisin.com/2017/09/29/please-sir-i-want-some-more-employment-applying-for-uk-jobs-part-i-the-lay-of-the-land/. And see the sequel post for all things REF: http://theprofessorisin.com/2017/10/20/the-uk-job-market-part-ii-research-by-numbers-or-the-ref/

6 comments on “Module Conveners and the British Job Market

  1. AnonAcademic says:

    FWIW: As a module convener it was also my responsibility to make sure the AV (etc) equipment was all in order for the lecture room and seminar rooms before the semester start. And to make sure appropriate rooms were assigned, with enough seats and correct equipment.

  2. Jen E says:

    Excellent, Rachel! So helpful, thank you!

  3. Lisa says:

    Echo Jen E. A wonderful summary of what sounds like an engaging, challenging, and perhaps occasionally frustrating, “admin” role. Is there a way to do this across disciplines in the UK setting? Tapping a colleague in an anthropology, literature, or art history dept., for example? I’d love to see a sample syllabus, if you ever feel like sharing.

    • Hm. I think that yes, you could ask colleagues in adjacent departments, but there would be reluctance to implement this sort of sharing across the board because of how workload is calculated. Teaching on non-departmental modules is harder to “count,” so you’d be asking for a favor/doing someone a favor/possibly committing to doing that favor for several years in a row. We do have someone coming in to lecture about getting jobs in history, which fills up a slot and gives students lots of useful information, but this kind of parachuting in for a lecture from a different department is not that common. I haven’t put this module’s syllabus online, but the ones for my solo classes are here: https://rachelbherrmann.com/teaching/

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