What makes a good teacher? Many have asked. And the answers have differed. A nursery schoolteacher’s answer may differ vastly from that of a high school teacher; and one parent’s ideal teacher for their child may be poles apart from another. So, it’s safe to say that there’s no right or wrong answer.
Associate Professor Elena Moore, the sole recipient of the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) 2021 Distinguished Teacher Award (DTA), has her own theory. For Associate Professor Moore, a good teacher is someone who creates learning spaces where the end goal is not about getting things right or finding solutions to complex problems – not yet at least. Rather, the end goal is about piquing students’ interests, encouraging critical thinking, ongoing learning, engagement and reflection. In a nutshell, Moore believes that a good teacher is one who listens to understand, who moves between different questions and topics and aptly applies critical concepts on a range of issues in the classroom. With UCT’s highest teaching accolade in the bag, does this professor in sociology get it right all the time?
“It’s a steady work in progress and we fail forward.”
“It’s a steady work in progress and we fail forward,” she said.
UCT News asked Moore about her teaching style, what she loves most (and least) about working with students, and what this well-regarded award means to her.
Niémah Davids (ND): How did you get into teaching? Was it by choice or chance?
Elena Moore (EM): I have been teaching since my final PhD year, which is just over 12 years now. I was inspired by several lecturers at Trinity College in Ireland where I completed my postgraduate studies (master’s and PhD). In the classroom I really enjoyed how we debated key issues on social justice and inequalities, and I was excited by the ways in which the lecturers and students opened up my eyes to different ways of thinking and seeing the social world. I was hooked, so it was definitely a by-choice decision.
ND: What do you teach and to whom?
EM: I teach two undergraduate classes, as well as two postgraduate classes in the Department of Sociology. On the first-year team, I teach a module called (Inter) Dependence, Solidarity and Care in Families. In this course we consider several concepts such as dependency, interdependency, care and solidarity through the lens of families and households. Then, I also teach a module on Culture, Families and Power to second-year students. This module considers two modes of power: the power of the state and its influence and intervention in family hierarchies and customary practices over the last two centuries; and the second explores the power dynamics within families.
I also teach an honours class titled: Gender, Families and the State. For many years this course was centred on the interaction between families and the state by focusing on social protection issues, as well as customary law matters. This year I redesigned the course to focus on care and caring. Now, the course discusses gender, family, care work, stratification and inequality. The aim is for students to begin to put together theoretical and empirical works for understanding care inequalities, in conversation with the recent experiential and empirical findings on COVID-19 and the ongoing care crisis.
Finally, I teach one master’s-level course, In-depth interviewing, and analysis. The course considers research design issues and focuses on qualitative data collection and interpretation. Students learn about the techniques involved in interviewing for life histories, lived periods, situations and ongoing personal experiences.
ND: How would you describe your teaching style?
EM: My teaching approach could be characterised as a space to talk, gather, open up, ask questions and collaborate. This is sometimes easier to achieve at the postgraduate level. At the undergraduate level, my teaching style is to think about how we take the words we use in our everyday lives for granted. Yet, those very words have been socially constructed to have very harmful effects on an individual. By taking time to unpack and think through such concepts and the power that such concepts hold, we uncover the social, political, historical and economic forces that have shaped this construct and its meaning in our contemporary lives.
ND: What do you love most (and least) about working with students?
“I love their curiosity, enthusiasm and their inquiring minds.”
EM: I love their curiosity, enthusiasm and their inquiring minds. Students at UCT and in South Africa generally are very sharp, have such great ideas and make wonderful, thought-provoking contributions to our discussions. For the most part, most students understand sociological concepts really well and live through the social issues and inequalities we discuss in class.
I don’t like setting deadlines and drawing strict rules with students. If I see that a student is not making progress in their work, it is not always helpful to just enforce a deadline. At the postgraduate level, at the very least, I think it is important to find out what the difficulties are and to see how we can work with them.
ND: How has your relationship with your students, your teaching style and subject matter changed over the years?
EM: I am not sure if my relationship with students has changed too much, but I have changed. Over the last few years, I started to be far more honest with myself and I started to accept that I don’t know what I don’t know. When I started teaching in 2012, I wasn’t pushed or motivated to teach what I didn’t know. I wasn’t motivated to begin to question why I didn’t know what I didn’t know, who I was and why that mattered. I came from the Global North, my knowledge and doctoral research and skills acquired were considered valuable and I believed they were valuable. I buried my head in local questions, contexts, and readings. But in hindsight I was often looking in the wrong places. I started thinking about practices and experiences on the ground; practices that are built and centred on negotiations and a diversity of family life in postcolonial contexts. I realised that I had been uncritical of the ways in which family sociology was being written about and that I needed to decolonise some of the texts that are considered seminal.
In more practical ways, I kept an eye on my assumptions about teaching; my classroom interactions; my relationships with students; and my understanding of a positive and democratic learning environment. I also kept an eye on the kind of politics I practised in the lecture hall and seminar room. I constantly asked myself: Who am I favouring in the lecture hall and in the online world; in that assignment question and tutorial exercise; and even in those prescribed readings?
Over the last two years I started to engage in extensive reflection of my pedagogy with online learning. I started to question deeply which aspects of my pedagogy are ill-fitting to the needs of students and what parts need changing or strengthening and why. I have noticed and felt the distance between students and lecturers grow as spaces of learning became buttons, screens, and technological devices. I am trying to work around that by creating a mix of spaces for gathering and talking.
ND: There must have been many challenges over the past decade. Which of those challenges have fundamentally shaped you as a teacher?
EM: I think there are several overlapping challenges that have shaped me as a teacher. I don’t think we can separate the student protests (2015–2017) and the political acts of decolonisation – the questioning, challenging and overthrowing existing systems of power and knowledge – from the ongoing post-pandemic moment. Upon reflection, the 2015–2017 South African higher education students’ movements recentred what I had been experiencing but failed to address. I started to consider how I was shaping a neo colonial project in my praxis. In 2016, I was asked by a third-year black student who I thought I was to be teaching at UCT. I had to take individual action to transform what I taught and how I taught. I needed to ask myself: How come I see things the way that I do; how did I get to occupy this space as a lecturer in this faculty and at this university? In 2018 this re-surfaced as I was asked to take up a research position at the university. And again in 2020, the pandemic threw light on the inequalities inherent in the hierarchisation of the teaching and learning environment.
“For me, it is critical to give recognition to teaching in a higher education system that often values research and research outputs over teaching.”
ND: Finally, how significant is this DTA recognition to you?
EM: For me, it is critical to give recognition to teaching in a higher education system that often values research and research outputs over teaching. I often wondered whether you would have a ‘Research Buyout System’ the same way you have teaching relief support systems. This award reminds us that teaching is a valued practice, and this recognition comes from students, colleagues and the institution.
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