Teaching as a professor

Dr. Crazy has a great post this week about the intensity of an assistant professor’s workload, and how that’s different from graduate school. I also teach at a “regional comprehensive” university, and so have a roughly similar mix of teaching, research, and service expectations. She says more or less everything I would want to about work; this post is about mindset.

The biggest difference for me–apart from service expectations–was a more fully-realized consciousness of teaching in a department, and the idea that one is responsible to one’s colleagues (and vice versa). When I taught in graduate school, and afterwards as a Brittain fellow, it was predominately composition. I worried about surviving the paper load, about helping students to write a bit better, and that was it. I didn’t really need to think about how the course’s content fit into a broader curriculum. The times I got to teach an upper-division class, I could think of those as quasi-autonomous entities, little self-contained jewels. My vision of my students was strictly one-semester: It wasn’t like I had students from composition turning up two years later in my Dickens and Dostoevsky class.

But now, almost every semester I teach courses at all levels of the curriculum. (Though, weirdly, I have no first-year courses in the upcoming year.) And it’s interesting to see the same students again and again on a regular basis, either as they progress through the major, or as they come back for electives. It makes tangible the (obvious) point that students progress through time, have different needs at different moments in their education, and so forth.

And teaching a course that’s more or less required* both for the major and for gen ed–such as, for instance, Brit Lit II–requires, I have found, more thought than I would’ve given to it as a grad student. Majors and nonmajors arguably need quite different things from such a course: Majors need some orientation to periodization, strategies for reading, and so forth; nonmajors might benefit from these, but one also wants to “play the hits” a bit. I’ve also found it strange to teach the Victorians in the survey, inasmuch as one feels obliged to teach–how to put this?–“things other people would expect students to know.” That’s a set that intersects imperfectly with “things I’d want people to know about Victorian literature.” Plus, one ends up trying to recruit a bit for one’s classes: since students can easily navigate the curriculum without a Victorian novel class, I want to bait the hook a little bit.

Then, when I teach that Victorian novel class, or the junior-level Victorian survey, I try to think of how the course fits in with other courses being offered, and how it intersects with the overall emphases of our department. (When I taught T. S. Eliot under the auspices of “Major American Authors,” rather than as a “Studies in British Literature” section, this became an explicit theme for the course.)

Having a multi-year vision of my students changes lots of things. In composition, for example, I try to focus on thesis-based writing, because that’s prevalent in the humanities. But in my survey and upper-division courses, I’ll sometimes overplay born-digital assignments because it’s my impression that many students aren’t being asked to do them elsewhere in our curriculum. Aside from the sheer # of students, fitting courses into a sequence has required the most thought in my time on the tenure-track.

(And, hey, in two weeks I’ll officially be an associate professor–I can start making snarky comments about “the junior faculty,” and “these kids just out of grad school”! 🙂

Update: Welcome, InsideHigherEd.com readers!  You might also be interested in this recent post on service.

*Technically it’s not required for either. But students do have to take a literature course to fulfill gen ed, and many do this with a survey. In the past, when Brit Lit II counted for international credit, nonmajors would use it to double dip, fulfilling two requirements at once. (It’s not required for the major because the dept offers 6 surveys–World Lit I/II, Brit Lit I/II, and American Lit I/II. You can’t have 18 credits of the major be surveys. [How do Americanists fill a whole year?] Still–lots of people take it.)

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One Response to Teaching as a professor

  1. Great posts from both you and Dr. Crazy. As a grad student in the dissertating phase of the process, the time both of you take to thorough explain your positions ‘on the other side’ is appreciated. I have been frustrated in the past by professors who tell those of us still struggling through coursework, exams, etc. “you think this is hard–just wait until you’re tenure track!” but then don’t explain what they mean, leaving us discouraged, confused, and even more tired than we were before, thinking that what dim light there was at the end of a very long tunnel had just been extinguished.

    As a graduate student instructor, I also have felt very isolated from the undergrad community at my institution. I have often felt that I am just sort of starting to get the hang of this teaching thing when I suddenly find myself not teaching for another year, and then when I have to dust off the classroom skills a year later, I feel like I’m starting from scratch. I’m looking forward to a time when I feel like I know some of my students, like I understand their community a little bit better, and like I have a better idea of who I’m designing a syllabus before (besides the teaching fellowship committee)…even though I also know that there will be new pressures, responsibilities, and pains in the ass then, too.

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