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Head of English Literature explains teaching choices

The head of the English Literature Department at the University of Edinburgh, Alex Thomson, spoke to The Student about why face-to-face teaching has been drastically reduced in the School of Literature, Languages and Cultures and more broadly across the university.

He explained that back in May 2020, a ‘working group’ was set up to advise the School on hybrid teaching and stated that the report produced by the group advised that ‘where possible you should avoid any video conferencing’.

The group’s recommendation was to prioritise accessibility for students in different time zones and with poor internet speeds.

Mr Thomson explained that “this emphasis on low bandwidth activity… was because we can’t assume every learner has access to the same degree of technology…it might be…you have to share the only internet connection in a house with family or other students” so it was decided that having weekly live tutorials would be “disadvantaging some of our students”.

This is why the Department of English Literature, and most other departments in the university, have made all lectures pre-recorded, because according to Mr Thomson, “live lectures put great pressure on the system”.

While some departments have opted for no live tutorials at all, Thomson explained that English Literature “reached a middle position where the synchronous (live) activities aren’t the central part of the course” which means that “we’re not penalising non-attendance at tutorials anymore”.

They also reduced the length of tutorials, whether in-person or online, because “we knew there was going to be a radically reduced number of rooms because of social distancing” and so shorter tutorials would ease crowding in academic buildings. 

Mr Thomson also explained why the English Literature Department opted to replace exams with coursework, despite the fact that this means many students will have no experience of exams before their Honours years.

He said that “rather than having a time limit, which we think adds an extra and unnecessary form of stress, we just release the titles a long way in advance so that students can plan”.

He also explained that ‘take-home’ exams, an option some other departments have chosen, are difficult to schedule because “a two-day window might conflict with another course’s exams” and disadvantage some students. 

This semester, thousands of students signed an open letter to the University of Edinburgh demanding lower fees due to reduced teaching time and access to educational resources. It is yet to be decided whether students will see more in-person teaching in Semester Two.

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