How to Teach Migration?

23 August 2016

The idea behind organizing a PhD workshop on teaching at the IMISCOE Conference 2016 in Prague was twofold: First, we wanted to create a platform for PhD students, who are based at different universities in different countries, to exchange on and motivate each other to do (better) teaching on migration issues.

Second, we wanted to highlight an aspect of our academic lives, which is central to us both as learners and teachers, but which seems to take a backseat, as success is mostly defined in terms of research progress and publications. This bias is also reflected in the programme of international networks and conferences, including IMISCOE events, which leave little or no time for a reflection on teaching.

Ten colleagues from different institutes in Germany, Austria, Italy, Hungary, Belgium, South Africa and the Netherlands followed our call for participation to discuss questions like: What have been our experiences as PhD students regarding teaching? How to manage our time between teaching and other obligations? And how to teach courses on emotionally charged and highly politicized topics like international migration and integration?

We started by ‘mapping’ our teaching experience on a chart: While some of us had two or more years of teaching experience, some had none at all. Those of us who had the most teaching experience were financing their PhDs through positions as lecturers, which is quite common for example at German universities. In Germany unlike in other countries it is also not unusual that PhD candidates design their own courses as opposed to tutoring a course, which is designed by a professor, as it is usually the case in the UK for instance. We found that designing and teaching a course meant a greater workload and responsibility than tutoring an already existing course. However, it also offers the opportunity to work on issues closely related to one’s own research and fields of interest.

Despite the great variety in terms of ‘teaching cultures’ at the different institutes, we identified the missing support in teaching as a common challenge. Most of us felt that we were not prepared to do teaching and/or lacked guidance when involved in teaching. This was at least partly due to the way teaching was overall seen in many of our institutes – namely, as a subordinate task. Some of us had found individual solutions to the problem, such as approaching colleagues with their questions, but we felt that there should be a more institutionalized way of supporting ‘newcomers’ to Higher Education teaching. This could be done for example through co-teaching schemes with more experienced colleagues, free Higher Education teaching courses (like the ones offered to postgraduates in the UK), and peer-learning groups.

In the second part of the workshop, we worked in sub-groups on four practice-oriented problems, such as how to deal with racist statements by students (or professors) and how to integrate current political events and debates into a class. Every group brainstormed about various ideas and presented their solutions afterwards to the whole group.

Together we found (sometimes various) solutions to the practical dilemmas. For example, we agreed that a racist remark should never be left unanswered, but differed in our opinions on what an answer should look like. While some proposed that the teacher should take a stand and make clear that racist remarks are not welcome in the classroom, others argued that stereotypes were often reproduced unintentionally and that a better solution would be to ask other students to comment on it. An open discussion moderated through the teacher would be a better solution, they thought, as it encouraged students to express themselves, but also to critically reflect on what they and others were saying.

Regarding the question how to deal with the political and emotional nature of the topics we are teaching, we started to explore different formats of and materials for teaching. One participant stated that to him, that academia often failed to grasp the emotions attached to migration issues. He suggested integrating cultural production both as a means and as an outcome to teaching migration. For example, music, drama, movies and novels could be used in teaching to make migration issues understandable and to also render the classes more fun for students. Other participants recounted how photography could be used or excursions to bring topics to life. One example on how teaching on migration can lead to a cultural product was the exhibition “Movements of Migration” in the city of Göttingen. The exhibition and an online archive (accessible at was the outcome of a 3-semester seminar at the University of Göttingen. Creating a toolbox and gathering experiences with different (and amongst other things arts-based) approaches to teaching migration could be one of the aims of the future work of the teaching committee within the IMISCOE PhD network.

The Teaching workshop clearly confirmed the need for PhD candidates to exchange about their teaching experiences. At the end of the workshop, we came up with several ideas on how to continue the exchange within the IMISCOE PhD committee and beyond. These included an extra section on the IMISCOE PhD network blog on teaching issues. In this section, we could post literature on teaching, as well as sample course outlines for different topics within the field of migration studies, and exchange on practical issues related to teaching in the sense of an international peer-learning group. Another idea was to collect information on on-going courses on teaching taking place at the IMISCOE member institutes, which are open to PhD candidates from other institutes.


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