The teaching of cell biology in a School of Biological and Chemical Sciences

Summary – the story below describes the preparation required to provide a high-quality series of lectures to university students and what happens when corporate management takes over university governance. After I was dismissed someone was employed full-time to cover the teaching of cell biology. A year later this person was also dismissed.

As part of my introductory lectures to first year undergraduate students studying in SBCS, I used to discuss what it means to join two words together – using the examples of “cell” and “biology”. Unfortunately, prior to my arrival in this department, the ‘module’ I was teaching had been given the names of “cell dynamics” and “the human cell”, although delivered at the same time and by the same person (but students were assigned to ‘independent’ programmes of study).

When I joined the department, Prof Jeff Duckett was the module(s)’ organiser and became a key mentor to me. I attended Jeff’s lectures in 2007 and 2008. Initially I was asked to give six lectures myself (to an audience of 400 students). How to communicate effectively with so many at a time? What were the appropriate messages to be transmitted? Many days of preparation and improvement on the following year following discussions and peer-observation ensued. Despite the ‘light’ teaching load, marking the final year exam taught me why during the month of May academics could achieve nothing more beyond providing a fair evaluation to students. In 2009, Jeff retired from Queen Mary. He suggested to continue providing some lectures, but the College decided to pass the module to me instead.

I pause to consider the implications of this decision. An academic role is – at least! – tripartite, teaching being an important component. On the one hand, the decision allowed me to grow professionally as an educator, moving from teaching defined subjects (cell organisation, cell division and protein trafficking) to building an introductory course to a broad field of study. I searched (in vain) for a good core textbook and agonised on how to re-organise the lectures. In this sense, there was meaning in asking an experienced professor, willing to continue his contribution, to retire. However, I came to see at least two other views: the argument that I should have been given more time to concentrate in growing my research lab – especially given that my position was hanging on research metrics (my contract was “permanent” and had a retirement date specified – but the meaning of these things in the UK is disingenuous and farcical). The second point is that a balance should be sought for the students to benefit both by the experience of the older generation and by the momentum of the younger academics.

The first year after Jeff’s departure, the module changed only little in structure for two reasons: another lecturer who was also giving six lectures under Jeff remained involved (you don’t ask an overworked colleague to make substantial changes in the material they have organised to teach) and Jeff’s post-doctoral fellow was also happy to cover some of the topics Jeff used to teach. We had three laboratory components teaching microscopy and osmosis, hematometry and tissue organisation, which involved graduate students as demonstrators. There were four lab sessions in a given week and although I couldn’t meet 100 students one-to-one, this was the principal venue to get to know many and put faces to names.

In the next year, 2010, as a result of events I will describe on a different occasion, I almost collapsed during the first of these practicals at the beginning of the semester. I had attended the practical despite a persistent fever and diarrhoea, which eventually lead to a lung embolism. The doctors at the Royal Free Hospital said they were surprised that I was alive – a strange thing to hear. Because there had been no provision for replacement, I had decided to attend even though I was unwell. The chaos caused when I had to be hospitalised for a month is well known to the students of that generation.

Further change occurred in 2011. I was asked by a newly-appointed manager to take up the entire module on my own. This meant I had to prepare a number of new lectures expanding on the physiology of cellular organelles but also covering stem cells and the cellular basis of cancer (the module continued to receive the generous contribution of Dr Silvia Pressel). I had changed Jeff’s “reading week” test into a small essay, which meant assessing 400 pieces of work, allowing for a meaningful connection with the class. Overall, the module received a positive evaluation from the students.

However, I was obliged to give them a warning that they might lose a good number of their lecturers as the new manager and his bosses were so inclined. The students acted en masse to defend SBCS form restruction, but we failed, leading to over 30 academics departing from a faculty of 65.

I was the only one deciding to question the legal basis for this managerial intervention. A School admired for its teaching and respected for its research contributions was operating with a large surplus – returned to the College year after year for its needs elsewhere and eventually used for restructuring purposes. My case is still being considered – it was dismissed by an Employment Tribunal on the first instance, but see also David Bignell’s view for context. Reviewing what has happened to my teaching after I left was of minor if any concern for the Tribunal. After I was dismissed someone was employed full-time to cover the teaching of cell biology.

In October 2012, I was invited to present a seminar in SBCS. This was around the time my replacement was presenting the opening lectures. Being back to London, I was tempted to attend. The new Lecturer had published in neuroscience in the mid-nineties and was working as a private tutor more recently. We were not introduced. A visual encounter in the School’s elevator made me think it would have been inappropriate to attend. The College dismissed my replacement in 2013. I understand this was, in part, driven by student dissatisfaction.

Some of my colleagues have made bitter comments about the contrast between declarations by Queen Mary managers and the consequences of their decisions for student education. If, however, there was any Schadenfreude in these comments, I beg to consider the three to four years of investment and effort I needed to be able to lead the module. To recruit someone who had not been working as an academic and ask them to deliver at the same standard is unreasonable. To dismiss them a year later was legal due to the type of contractual agreement, but as for the morality of this action, you can guess my view.

So what happened with this teaching in 2013? Please let me continue this story in a subsequent post.

13 thoughts on “The teaching of cell biology in a School of Biological and Chemical Sciences

  1. fanis got worst feedback. worst lecturer in cell biology in 2012. Taught only 3 chapters whole year and expected first years to read all textbooks. No wonder college got rid of him.

  2. @Egomaniac – not sure to whom I am answering, but for the history I did not teach cell biology in 2012 and therefore there was no feedback for me on that year. There has been a lot of debate as to why the actual student feedback for the modules never counted in the restructuring exercises – I would have been delighted (and helped) from the comments of the student body. In terms of numbers the module received 3.8 out of 5 in the 2011 assessment (last year I taught) and I understand the numerical evaluation dropped to 2.5 out of 5 in 2012 (after I departed). I have not investigated what happened in 2013. Your comment on my (presumed) expectations is also in some ways revealing of how (to use your example) asking students to be informed from multiple sources may lead to a negative evaluation for the lecturer. If that lecturer’s position depends on student satisfaction, what is one predictable reaction the following year? (use a single textbook, or go out of his way to convince the new class of why using multiple sources can be beneficial?)

  3. vivid memories – you teaching me (and a whole class of 350+) or tried to teach cell dynamics in autumn 2011. student feedback given at end and still on website in 2012. Bad memories! SBCS biology now up 15 places up in league tables based on 2013 teaching incl cell dynamics. all this after you left! Now a graduand and grateful to those who worked hard to get me here

  4. Thank you for commenting.
    Good to know that at least one student in the class – now a graduate – seems to think that the College took the right decision in dismissing me for my ways of teaching. Half of the academic staff of SBCS in 2011 have departed, the majority on their own accord.

  5. Just so you know it was an entire class of students who thought the same about your teaching as I did. Don’t pat yourself on the back for no reason at all.. I still had the same lecturers until 2013.

  6. I made the comparison from the academic staff listed in December 2011 on the SBCS website and those listed in July 2014. There were 28 departures and 32 new names appearing in two and a half years (I wonder how their respective profiles compare). 47 individuals were present at both times. My statement “Half of the academic staff of SBCS in 2011 have departed” is therefore imprecise, but only 62 members appeared on the restruction “Grid” used to declare eleven of us as “at risk of redundancy” – not 75 as were physically present – which may explain why I mistakenly rounded up the 37% turnover to 50%… As I already said, only a minority of those 28 individuals were asked to go, but as a rule those who had the highest teaching loads were either asked to stay one further year to teach until their replacements were recruited as a condition to receive an enhanced payment upon dismissal or to focus solely on teaching but desist from doing any research.
    See for example: http://www.unions.qmul.ac.uk/ucu/docs/sbcs_open_letter.pdf

  7. I was taught by you, and to be honest QMUL dismissed a great lecturer. I enjoyed your teaching style and how you connected with the students. I now have decided (because of the influence you had on me as a lecturer and cell biology) to pursue a career in that field.
    The person above’s identity is arguable. I hope the best for you in the future. Its hard to find as passionate teachers.
    Thank YOU

  8. Seriously Faye there is no way you can know the identity of someone in a class of 400. Some low performers in class no doubt found it useful to owe their misguided allegiance to their lecturer. Good luck on winning the Nobel Prize!

  9. Dr Missirlis, was not only mu academic tutor at QMUL, but a supreme lecturer, researcher and source of advice. Metrics does not make a university, or department, or even a lecturer great. What makes a great researcher and lecturer is the passion they have for what they do and the hours upon hours they spend in painstakingly preparing to teach well over 300 students. Dr Missirlis has that in abundance. Sir you have supported me throughout my academic life and beyond for that I am eternally grateful.

  10. Dear Mohammed, tutorials are an excellent aspect of the UK academic experience and a milieu where personal relationships with students are fostered. Thank you for posting here and good luck with all you are up to!

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