What It's Like to Lecture at University While You're in Your Twenties
"You think the students will relate to you quite easily, but actually, it only takes one attempt to make a pop culture reference to realise there's no point in trying to be cool."
Our Year 11 English class at school was taught by a baby-faced young man. Someone who, in retrospect, must have been fresh out of teacher training college. We sensed weakness – his dreadful nerves – so we pounced and made his life miserable, ruining his class with snide remarks, stupid questions and generally shitty behaviour.
Thankfully, going to university makes us wise up a bit, discover our own personality and throw off the pack mentality that both helps us through the adolescent years and inspires us to be pointlessly cruel to Year 11 English teachers. And yet, attending seminars, tutorials and lectures continues to offer up weird encounters with surprisingly young educators – the types who look like they might still share memes and camp out at Glastonbury, despite the fact they must have notched up a couple of degrees and immersed themselves in the oddities of academia.
You can't help but wonder what it must be like to teach university classes at that age, when you're still in your twenties and could feasibly move in the same kind of social circles as some of your older students. Wouldn't these gifted scholars rather being doing research? Or do they enjoy the chance to show off to their slightly younger peers?
Krystina Osborne, 27, has been teaching English Literature students for the past two years. She is also trying to finish her PhD thesis on female masturbation in contemporary's women's writing, a topic that "raises eyebrows" whenever she tells people what she's working on.
"I've been told that I do look young for my age, so I was pretty nervous taking that first seminar," says Krystina. "I suppose I was worried about commanding respect, whether or not they'd see me as someone they could look up to. But thankfully that first group was really bright and ready to talk, and it's gone well ever since. I really enjoy teaching. I think being younger makes you a bit more approachable – if they haven't completely understood a text, hopefully they find it a bit easier to ask me about it, knowing I was in their position not that long ago."
Krystina says she hasn't found it too difficult maintaining student-teacher boundaries. "Some of my students follow me on Twitter – I've no problem interacting on there, but it does probably make me wary of sharing anything too personal," she says. "When it comes to going to the pub, there's a natural divide between undergraduates and the academics at PhD level. And I'm not arrogant enough to assume the students want to socialise with me anyway. Some of them are eight or nine years younger than me, so it's quite a big gap."
Sam Power, 28, leads Politics seminars at Sussex University while completing his thesis on political parties' funding arrangements. He remembers getting good advice from a senior colleague just before he started teaching two years ago.
"He sat me down and said, 'Listen, Sam, however cool you think you are, you're not as cool as you think you are.' And that became clear very quickly. You think the students will relate to you quite easily, but actually, there is an age gap there that feels pretty vast. It only takes one attempt to make a pop culture reference to make you realise there's no point trying to be cool."
Sam elaborates: "I think we were discussing the justice system, and I said, 'You know, it's like 24 Hours in Police Custody. Does anyone watch that, on Channel 4?' And there were blank expressions. The thing is, it's not really a cool profession – you spent a lot of time reading books – so any attempt to be the cool young academic would be doomed to failure.
"I was a bit worried some students might think, 'Oh, I thought we'd get taught by a senior professor.' So I put a lot of work in making sure my seminars are really engaging. You don't want anyone to think it's been a waste of time, or a waste of money. Not these days, with the cost of going to university."
Dr Sarah Wiseman, 29, is a research and teaching fellow in the computing department at Goldsmiths University of London. She leads lab sessions, talking to around 50 students at a time, and also has some experience lecturing.
"I actually hope the students still think of me as a young person – maybe I'm just getting old and desperately want that to be the case," she laughs. "I was a bit nervous at first, but I've learned a lot after a few years of teaching. I've learned it's absolutely OK to admit you don't know the answer to something. You'd look like an idiot otherwise. And I've learned to freestyle a bit, rather than stick to a script."
Sarah has taken part in "Science Showoff" gigs designed to help young academics become more confident public speakers by getting them to do stand-up comedy about their research. "It was kind of terrifying, and definitely put the teaching into perspective," she says.
When it comes to socialising, Sarah thinks it's important to maintain a very clear boundary between undergraduate students and academics. "You want to be approachable... but it's about being viewed as a professional, rather than a friend," she explains. "There is a culture of end-of-the-day drinks among colleagues in my department, but not with the students. In fact, we do need to be a bit careful about what pubs to go to in the New Cross area to make sure there aren't awkward encounters."
So there you have it. If you find yourself in front of young, inexperienced tutors and lab leaders this term, they're probably a bit nervous and desperately keen for you to ask intelligent questions. But also: they almost certainly don't want to go to the pub with you. So if you do bump into them at the bar, best just to promise you'll get that essay done soon and leave them alone.
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