On Self-Reflexivity

I have been teaching in various ways for 5 or so years now. Taking all forms of teaching I do/have done in to account, I have been an A Level tutor, unofficial dissertation tutor, seminar leader, foundation lecturer and undergraduate lecturer. Outside of education, I am also a some-time karate instructor (on an unofficial basis, but I help out in classes and used to teach friends outside of classes when I wasn’t so busy).

I enjoy teaching – I like to think I have a talent for it, and based on (mostly informal) feedback so far, I’m fairly confident I’m not terrible. So that’s a start!

Yesterday was a lecturing day, and I had agreed to be observed so I could get some feedback on how I was doing and where I could improve. In a somewhat apposite fashion, I was teaching on qualitative methods; a section of which included how to be, and why one should be, self-reflexive. 

In general I think we all either try to be, or pay lip service to, being self-reflexive. We all reflect on our teaching, for example, whether we intend to or not – particularly if something doesn’t go to plan! But there is something about having structured feedback that is completely different. If you are simply reflecting on the day’s events, self-reflexivity is essentially a voluntary endeavour. When you are being observed by a colleague it is a different ball game. Of course the debrief afterwards is (or at least should be, as it was in my case) a fairly informal affair where you can bounce ideas around. It’s a fairly good example of the dialectic in action if you are allowed to discuss points with your observer and using your internal dialogue. Yet the major thing I noticed was firstly that I was being forced to self-reflect. Not in a coercive way, but simply through questions like ‘how do you think that went’? Innocuous enough, but its implications can get straight to the core of your teaching style. Luckily I have engaged in self-reflexivity before (mainly because I can’t switch my brain off, and so I obsess and deconstruct things over and over), so I knew how I would react to things. For example, I knew that when I was answering that question I would, to an extent, try to pre-empt what comments might be on their way. I managed that to an extent, which was actually very helpful as it let me know that I am actually aware of some of the things I could do better.

But knowing you need to do things better and actually putting in to place those improvements are vastly different things. I teach in a fairly conversational style. This style comes with a fair amount of risk attached, and you have to navigate that. I was not surprised to hear that the areas of improvement (as I saw them) could be traced back to this style and its implications on my teaching. Half the problem for me, then, is cutting down on off-the-cuff remarks that at best may not add anything and, at worst, may confuse or even unsteady students.

Being self-reflexive also carries other issues for someone like me. I know I’m not alone in this, but I have a tendency to focus on the negatives. When I’m in a good mood it lets me deal with them and move on. When I’m in not such a good mood it can be fairly destructive. The one or two points for improvement can engulf your reflection, blacking out the good points. This is neither healthy nor useful, and it is something I will have to deal with on my own terms. This is also probably the area that is most transferable to other realms of academia; the major example being a journal’s peer-review process. As an academic, you are setting yourself up for almost constant critique. You have to be able to be steadfast in your core principles, whilst adapting and modifying other aspects so that you can become a better researcher, intellectual and teacher.

There were things I didn’t want to think about in my reflection exercise. There were things I didn’t even realise I did whilst teaching! Hence the point of observation. Having someone discuss with you, in some cases, what you think makes you you can be difficult, but it is well worth it. And if you can decompress and do a secondary debrief afterwards, in your own head, you can get a lot out of it.

Essentially, if we are to teach, we should ensure that we are doing the best job we can. Our heads are so full of other things, teaching and research related (not to mention what’s going on in our personal lives) that we do need to rely on friends and colleagues to help us through our self-reflection, whether that’s by offering advice and comments, or in some other way. And of course, the more we reflect when we’re young and fresh-faced, the more capacity we can develop for change.

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