Teaching & Learning


My route to Professorial Teaching Fellow: Simon Mahony

Prof Mahony on the challenges of promotion and developing the next generation of reflective and critical citizens who have an advantage in the job market.

Simon Mahony

18 November 2019

Simon Mahony is Director of the UCL Centre for Digital Humanities (UCLDH) and is one of six colleagues promoted to Professorial Teaching Fellow this year – a grade introduced at UCL in 2017-18.

You’ve just been promoted to Professorial Teaching Fellow. What is your role?

Previously my role was as Programme Director (PD) for the MA/MSc in Digital Humanities offered by the Department of Information Studies, an interdisciplinary programme with students from a wide range of academic, as well as cultural backgrounds.

As Programme Director, I would teach my modules, but also meet with all the students one-to-one at least once per term, as well as organise and host social events for them.

I am now Director of the Digital Humanities Centre with the same teaching load and still part of the teaching team - I have the same direct contact with the students on my modules, my tutees and supervisees, but not so much with the other students across the programme. Now, I focus on building the international reputation of Digital Humanities at UCL and am more involved in the governance and management of the Centre.

The Digital Humanities is an ever developing and expanding field and steadily moving out of the Anglophone Western world. One such area is China where there is a fast-growing interest in our field, particularly so in research and curriculum development.

I network with the various groups there, advise on teaching and curriculum design, setting up and managing a research centre. I am frequently invited to speak to students, faculty and at conferences about all areas of our work and to pass on my experience. I also advise on digital humanities curriculum more broadly in a dedicated committee as part of the international iSchools organization.

What are the challenges in your role and how are you addressing them?

A major challenge is how we make our modules relevant to such a widely diverse student cohort, as well as ensuring that we deliver a cohesive programme.

Feedback from alumni and employers makes it clear that the combination of technical skills balanced with sensitivity to humanities-type material and environments is advantageous in the job market.

Our students learn and hence understand both sides; they have the ability to communicate with both technical and non-technical people effectively and, as such, are very well suited to be project managers - being able to bridge the gap and work together with both.

Our programme does not have any specific and clearly defined career pathway, but our students can fit comfortably in many spheres and they leave us being able to follow a wide range of employment opportunities.

We achieve this by concentrating on developing their thinking skills. Our students are challenged by the incorporation of new ideas and novel methods as well as encouraging them to reflect upon and think through new processes and principles as they work with materials already familiar to them.

Our teaching needs to be relevant to the students’ studies or research interests, but it is essential that they are prompted to think in new and different ways, even when dealing with familiar topics or objects of study - new methodologies and new ways of thinking. 

What’s the best thing about your job?

An important part of any job is to know where your strengths lie and to acknowledge them.

In a research-led institution such as UCL, there is a great deal of emphasis on the research side of things. A lecturer is under a great deal of pressure to publish and bring in research income.

Those of us on the teaching track do not have these requirements but have a higher teaching load to compensate. We have, or should have, a greater focus on our teaching and that means on our students.

Interacting with our students is the best thing about the job, particularly as we learn so much from them. In each class I explain the triangular relationship between teachers and their students:

  1. I hope that they will learn something from me;
  2. they will definitely learn from each other; and
  3. I will certainly learn from them. 

Learning is a two-way (or three way) street. To enable this, a successful and effective teacher needs to have empathy and be a ‘people’ person as well as organised – I know that these are my strengths but unfortunately not so with everyone.

With these in place, the rest comes with experience and a willingness to change and improve our practice.

What do you think of the Academic Career Framework?

When I first saw the new Academic Career Framework, I was a little unsure.

It seemed imprecise about requirements for the teaching track and a bit of a fudge when compared to the research one.

I found it, however, invaluable when preparing my application and something that was not available when I progressed to Principal Teaching Fellow.

It allowed me to go through my achievements, map them to the layout presented there and organise them in a more appropriate structure. It gave me direction but, at the same time, I was still not confident.

Although I considered that what I had done since my last promotion (going from Senior to Principal Teaching Fellow is a very considerable leap) should have been sufficient and persuasive, it was not clear whether it was close enough to the requirements outlined in the framework.

Afterwards, and on reflection, I guess that the slight vagueness is deliberately built in to allow for the variations in practice and so as not to exclude anyone because they had not specifically done this or done that.

Looking back further now, I think it offers great benefits to junior staff to plan ahead, if they do wish to progress. If anything, they now see that this is a possibility.

This is one reason that I agreed to write this short piece, squeezing it in between marking, to demonstrate that it is a possibility and certainly achievable.

One of the things I listed in my application was mentoring more junior Teaching Fellows and guiding them for promotion and I see this exercise as part of the same thing; if I can do it, so can you.

What are your thoughts on the status of teaching at UCL?

There are widely varied opinions on this, and I can only give mine.

UCL is a research-led university and that is what is mostly foregrounded. Nevertheless, UCL needs teachers and it needs good ones.

For reasons given above, my main motivation is to guide and nurture my students - not to hand-hold or spoon feed them but to challenge them and their ways of thinking in true Socratic method (did I mention that my academic training was in classics?). In this way I hope to develop the next generation of scholars, practitioners or indeed just virtuous, reflective and critical citizens.

How does a Teaching Fellow, however, feel (and or view themselves) when they realise that they are not technically Academic Staff? They are teaching staff, despite being able to join the Academic Staff Common Room. This in itself creates, within some staff, a tension and thoughts of a two-tier system with a different status for lecturers and Teaching Fellows.

UCL needs to think about how it might change this. Introducing this new Professorial Teaching Fellow at an equivalent grade to any other Professor is an excellent start. In a society where we often equate value with price, the same salary scale is important to indicate that you are equally valued.

What achievements helped you to make a case for promotion?

What is clear to anyone who has gone through the Teaching Fellows promotions process is that doing your job as a teacher, no matter how well, is not going to get you promotion.

That is only the starting point, and this is one of the issues alluded to above.

My most recent role has allowed me to take part in activities which, I feel, directly influenced the promotions process. I sat, and still do, on the non-Professorial Academic Board, several governance committees within UCL as well as acting as advisor and reviewer for teaching and curriculum at other institutions, including internationally.

I have been very fortunate to have had supportive mentors and line managers throughout my time at UCL. I was always encouraged to write, publish, attend conferences, give presentations and guest lectures. I have received support from both my department and UCL Global Engagement Office that have allowed me travel and to accept invitations from overseas.

I quickly learned that any of this activity would need to be linked with teaching, learning, curriculum development or the publication of teaching materials to have an impact on my career.

I am a strong advocate of the UCL Open Agenda, was involved in a Jisc funded Open Educational Resources (OER) project way back in 2011 and, more recently, I have been on the management board of the new UCL OER Repository. I have teaching material published there and the more recent ones in bilingual (English and Mandarin) form.

We need to be aware of the ‘impact’ related to what we do. Being on curriculum review panels at other institutions, introducing changes and Digital Humanities teaching, where there was none before, has enabled me to demonstrate that my work has influenced others to make such changes in their practice and hence has had an ‘impact’.

Publishing on pedagogy as well as teaching and learning should go some way towards supporting this too.

What would you say to people just embarking on a university career?

I would simply ask them why they wish to do so.

It is not for everyone and it is a long haul. Not much happens in the short term and so you need be prepared to put in the effort over time, always looking ahead. Oh yes, and the time.

After coming to UCL and in conversation with practitioners in an institution close by which is now part of UCL, I learned the phrase ‘outside of my contracted hours’ when attached to an interesting or rewarding project or enterprise.

By this, I mean that simply doing what is required of you will take up all of your contracted hours and so doing the additional things needed for personal growth, the other rewards and satisfaction that come from doing the job comes on top of that and hence are ‘outside of my contracted hours’.

Personally, I have grown much during my time at UCL; it has enabled this and given me the opportunity, which I took and ran with.

Overall, it is a very rewarding career (if you choose to make it so) and when I retire, in addition to my colleagues, it will be the contact and engagement with my students and the status accrued from being a part of such a renowned institution that I will miss the most.