Some thoughts about Teaching Awards

After being shortlisted for a Students’ Union award last year I put myself forwards for Durham’s Teaching Award a few months ago and last week found out I’d won. Obviously I’m delighted with this CV boosting accolade, and I’m thankful to all the students and colleagues who helped me get it. I’m well aware that awards such as this can be divisive (e.g. this article about staff attitudes to student led awards), so now that I’ve got one I thought it might be a good time to post some critical reflections about awards and identifying teaching ‘excellence’.


Artist’s reconstruction of me getting the award

All the Universities I’ve worked at have awards like this, and I’m sure they differ quite substantially. At Durham I had to write a 3,000 document about my teaching philosophy and practice, get some student/ staff nominations (cringe, but actually very rewarding) and the support of my HoD.

I already worry that it does take quite a bit of front to put yourself up for an award like this and I’m sure that many of my colleagues (who are all great teachers) would be uneasy at this stage, which is a shame.

It’s obviously extremely difficult to define ‘teaching excellence’ something that is becoming all the more apparent in current discussions about TEF. The Durham award focussed on reflective practice, which fits in with the HEA PSF . In putting together the document I think there is a clear expectation of some kind of narrative (problem – solution) which is fine, but what if your teaching a great course, really well and there isn’t a clear intervention narrative?

I also worry about student expectations of great teaching. There has been plenty of work done about the gender bias in teaching evaluations (e.g. this recent analysis). I know that as a male with no family, who lives in Durham city itself I do see my students out on a night out or at college functions and so seem ‘approachable’, in a way that isn’t available to my colleagues (male and female) with family commitments. Similarly my nomination for the DSU award mentioned that I answer emails quickly (“even on a Saturday night”) which is a tragic reflection on me, and an unfair expectation on staff. It’s also something I’ve stopped doing (or at least limited!) since seeing it in print.

A lot of my module evaluations mention that I’m ‘fun’ or ‘funny’, and that’s great, but I teach Anthropology and Sociology, which to some extent are pretty fun subjects (the former more so than the latter). I get to talk about Mean Girls, Monkeys, Zombies and Pub Quizzes. Not every subject has the potential to cover such a broad range of topics, and be so directly relevant to students.

My last comment is that throughout the process there was no direct observation of my teaching. It’s possible to think of an award where you put yourself forward (or are put forward by a HoD) and a classroom observation forms part of the process. Or nominations could come from the regular peer observations that we all should be doing anyway.  I definitely think that the panel could also look at and assess the online learning materials on the VLE as part of the process.

I don’t want to sound like I’m being overly critical of the Durham award. It’s well run, and held in high regard by my colleagues and students. I even get presented it at the Cathedral, so can pretend that I’ve graduated from Durham. There’s also a small pot of money that I can spend on something interesting (a Yik Yak workshop?).

I’m genuinely really grateful to the students and staff who helped me so much in getting the award, by being supportive colleagues or such great students to teach.  I think that while there is a big discussion about Teaching Excellence at an institutional/ departmental level it also timely to have a discussion about how to identify it at an individual level too.


About digitalscholar

I am a sociologist with an interest in new technology. Previously I’ve worked on a number of projects at Lancaster University and the Open University looking at the use of new technologies and social media by researchers. I was also a social sciences teaching fellow at the foundation centre at Durham University teaching sociology and anthropology. I am now a senior lecturer at the University of West London's Institute for Teaching, Innovation and Learning where I oversee the foundation provision and support retention. I'm sure I'll still be interested in, and occasionally blog about, tech related things. I use this blog to post thoughts about using new technologies in my professional academic life and wider thoughts and links relating to technology more generally.
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