‘The Happy Professor’

Professor discusses his new book on the joy of teaching undergraduates.

July 16, 2019
 

Professors teach; most of them teach undergraduates. This is their path to self-redemption, according to The Happy Professor: How to Teach Undergraduates and Feel Good About It (Rowman & Littlefield). Bill Coplin, the author, is director and professor in the policy studies program at Syracuse University. He responded to queries about his new book.

Q: You talk about priorities in a career. What if you are at a university where a faculty member can't make teaching undergraduates a priority?

A: This is a major cause of unhappiness. If you are asked to teach undergraduates and want to be happy, give the job enough priority to help students prepare for careers and become effective citizens along with your content. Follow the strategies and tactics in the book. Research for your career can still be No. 1 if it puts food on the table, but in that case, undergraduate teaching has to be No. 2 if you want to find peace in teaching undergraduates. Once you are a tenured full professor, the priorities should reverse if you include graduate teaching. I choose to make teaching my top priority at a research university because I didn’t feel good treating paying customers [as] less than they should be. That choice has been extremely rewarding and hence, the happy professor.

Q: Assuming you are a professor where you can focus on teaching, how can you use the skills continua you outline?

A: You can do many things, but first you must focus on the important skills for careers and citizenship that your course will help students practice. Then list the skills in your syllabus and on your course evaluations. Always mention in class the skills that are being practiced and how they will help in careers and effective citizenship. For example, if you are having students conduct or think about surveys, mention that surveys are used in all professional careers, whether business, nonprofit or government, and also note that citizens need to understand the principles of survey design when making judgments about government policies and politicians.

Q: You advocate for “andragogy, not pedagogy.” What does that mean?

A: “Andragogy” is a term developed many years ago and championed by Malcolm Knowles in the 1960s. It means teaching adults, while “peda” means children. I advocate treating undergraduates as if they were adults even though many are not far along on the children-adult continuum. Treating undergraduates as children being told what to do and what to learn breeds distrust. Distrust breeds late and poorly written papers and zoning out in class. The question “why do I have to learn this?” needs to be answered with something other than “it’s good for you.” Teachers should check out Knowles’s writing to see the many and powerful differences between viewing your student as a child and not an adult.

Q: How can faculty members become more experimental in the classroom?

A: I wrote the book so faculty can try out things that worked for me, many of which are small and don’t take a lot of time or effort. The most powerful thing they can do is to treat students or former students as advisers in some capacity. They will make suggestions on what the teacher is now doing, and after a while the teacher will come up with ideas and ask for their advice.

Q: Your advice on teaching assistants may surprise faculty members. What is their positive role?

A: I found that graduate teaching assistants did not know the content of my course since they had not taken it. Teachers will not know the abilities and knowledge base of their graduate students. They will know it for their undergraduates. Undergraduate TAs who took the course know what students need. They will help teachers avoid the tendency to teach over the heads of the majority of their students. They make it easy in a big class to make the class have a small-group feel to it. They can be used for mundane things like taking attendance or grading multichoice tests. They can help in writing and evaluating the tests. They will recruit new students. They will serve as junior partners. Just as importantly, the undergraduate TAs will learn to take responsibility, how difficult teaching is and many other things for career and citizenship. Teachers need more help as the technology becomes a larger part of education in both designing course work and coaching students on how to navigate software.

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