Another day, another set of lectures. Whether wide awake and hanging on to every word or wishing you could have stayed in bed, lectures are at the heart of every student’s weekly routine. But does anyone ever wonder what lecturers do outside of these hours?
The Saint caught up with Dr Jon Coulston of the School of Classics to find out. Dr Coulston, who was one of this year’s recipients of the Teaching Excellence Award following staff and student nominations, gave us his perspective on the life of the lecturer, from class preparation to fitting into St Andrews’ student-dominated community.
Every lecturer approaches class preparation differently, but Dr Coulston, who takes lectures in Ancient History and Archaeology, makes great use of his favourite piece of software: Microsoft Powerpoint. He said: “for your own sanity and own professionalism, it’s important to keep [lectures] fresh and to keep them updated.”
Dr Coulston’s passion for his subject and eagerness to keep his lectures interesting and personal became evident as he continued: “I’m
an archaeologist, I deal with visual material, so I really love PowerPoint, I think it’s been an absolute gift. I’m a lunatic photographer when it comes to quantities of images and I travel a lot. So the combination of travel, photography and research comes through to the teaching and I think my PowerPoints are quite visually impressive as a result.”
This interest in travel and desire to share experiences doesn’t stop when a lecturer dismisses the class. Students often appear to absentmindedly cling onto the primary school myth that teachers live at school, as Dr Coulston highlighted: “there is a student perception that lecturers get powered down like a teaching droid, or put back in a box at the end of the day.”
In fact, this could not be further from the truth. While the time distributed to each role may vary throughout the year, lecturers are principally involved in three things: teaching, administration and research. Although it is not something that we, the students, witness, Dr Coulston points out: “research is what underpins the teaching, underpins your career generally, brings money into the University, fuels your publications and all this sort of thing.”
He adds: “Sometimes you’re doing huge amounts of teaching and a bit of administration and not much time for research, other times you are on research leave and have stepped away from the teaching and administration and given quality time. So there’s always something happening.”
In Dr Coulston’s view, teaching and research are very much co-dependent.
He says: “The two are absolutely horse and carriage because the teaching benefits from cutting-edge research. A very large proportion of images of excavations, closed buildings, obscure sights that have subsequently been destroyed et cetera are my own work, my own input, which I think is important for the students, to get things they won’t get from anywhere else.”
St Andrews’ small, student-dominated community means that contact between students and staff doesn’t stop at the end of class. This does sometimes result in uncomfortable eye contact in Tesco, as you regret wearing your pyjamas to do a milk run. However, Dr Coulston thinks that the community-esque vibe is incredibly beneficial. Having undergone his undergraduate degree in History at the University of Leicester and then an MPhil and PhD in Archaeology at the University of Newcastle before being appointed at St Andrews in 1995, he worried that he would miss the bright lights of the city, but has actually come to love the town, saying: “I like the sociability of it. It’s nice, it’s not repressive or claustrophobic. I know some people refer to the town as the bubble, but I don’t think of it in those terms.”
Having been invited to former students’ weddings and happy to keep in contact with many via Facebook, Dr Coulston genuinely appreciates the opportunity to engage in discussion and debate with others interested in his subjects, no matter the stage of their academic career: “Everyone respects everybody. That’s gorgeous; it really adds a depth of sociability to the job that you wouldn’t get in so many other areas. My philosophy is that the distinction between students and staff isn’t as great as people may think, in that we are all interested in the same thing, hopefully!
Talking to students is good for me, it helps me learn stuff and ask questions I wouldn’t have thought of otherwise. These are people we’re recruiting as future generations of academics as well, so why be elitist and standoffish? Everyone’s an adult, so it is absolutely in everyone’s interest to have almost a family community.”
With twenty-one years of experience as a lecturer to his name, Dr Coulston has seen many students pass through St Andrews, but he believes it is the variety of the job which keeps his enthusiasm alive. Summarising this continued enjoyment, he said: “Teaching makes you look outwards, it makes you think about other people’s opinions and concerns. Teaching’s fun, by and large, I greatly enjoy it.”