Case study: Department of English and Creative Writing

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Across the University postgraduates who teach face the problem of falling into the uncomfortable position between student and staff member, which can potentially make for awkward relations with departments. In most cases this is a minor concern and accepted as being part of the postgraduate experience. However, the issue appears to have been magnified in the Department of English and Creative Writing, where some PhD students have spoken strongly about their experiences.

One student cited the experience of being confronted about use of the staff room, which some academics feel should not be for postgraduate use, as an indicator of an antagonism between postgraduates and senior academics.

“I am staff because I teach in this department and I’m paid to do so,” the student argued. “I think there’s a definite ambivalence in this department as to what constitutes ‘staff’.”

Both this student and others in the department emphasised that they enjoy and appreciate teaching.

“I think it’s good for PhD students to [teach] because it is very solitary and quite a lonely thing to do, doing a PhD and I think that’s why it’s valuable for us to have that contact with people and also to teach things we don’t specialise in.”

Students have criticised the department for not allowing postgraduates greater input into the content of the courses they teach despite academic staff doing relatively little teaching on Part One courses. “The senior staff here are so out of touch with the first year course because they haven’t taught it for so long.”

Consequently, students see the department as “regressive” and as having an “unhelpful and on occasion oppressive hierarchy”.

“There is such a divide between postgrad and senior staff here that I just don’t think there’s a will to share any experience because they identify themselves as being very different to us,” one student told SCAN.

Head of Department Dr Robert Appelbaum acknowledged the postgraduates’ concerns, saying that “it is a difficult thing to do to be a postgraduate student.” However, far from identifying an unpleasant atmosphere in his department, Appelbaum said he thinks “this is quite a friendly department, a very collegial department,” which in itself could indicate the division postgraduates feel.

“We can do whatever we can to make sure [postgraduate students are] treated as professionals and that their work is respected, and I think we do that as much as we can,” said Appelbaum, adding that otherwise this in-between position is “part of the deal”.

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