Teaching or Tanning?

Rob Weir considers the ins and outs of teaching in the summer.

May 27, 2009

To teach, or not to teach: that is the question:

Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to collect

The dimes and dollars of windfall fortune,

Or to lie on a beach far from the sea of troubles,

And just chill out? To tan: to sleep;

Late; and by a sleep to say we end

The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks

That grading is heir to, 'tis a consummation

Devoutly to be wish'd. To tan, to research;

To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub.

Just about the time you’ve exhausted your final red pen and have embraced the sunlight cresting over a pile of corrected exams, your department chair sends out a memo asking for volunteers to teach a summer course. If you’re a junior faculty member still trying to retire graduate school debt, the thought of a few thousand windfall dollars will be like meat powder to Pavlov’s dog. Should you leap and lick, or lumber off toward a beach sunset? There are plenty of reasons to choose either option, so let’s look at each.

Just Walk Away, Renee!

If any of the following conditions apply, toss the memo and wipe all thoughts of summer teaching from your mind:

  • Burn out
  • Pressing research needs
  • Family needs
  • Desire to travel
  • It’s all about the money

If you’re a new faculty member who has just completed your first year of teaching, you might be feeling like a boxer in the 15th round about now. Listen to your body. If you’re burnt out, take some time to recharge your batteries. September will roll around fast enough on its own; spend six weeks of your summer teaching and it will feel like you’re the protagonist in Groundhog Day.

You’ll have also learned a truism: When classes are in session you have to steal time for research. If you need to make progress on your research for reappointment or future tenure, do not teach in the summer even if you need the cash. You will rob Peter to pay Paul, either in terms of making yourself a 24/7 workaholic or in jeopardizing future employment for short-term gain.

If you want to spend time with family or if you’d like to travel, just say no. Junior faculty spouses and children too often suffer from neglect and summer provides quality time opportunities. You’ll also need some prep time for fall. If, for instance, you teach for six weeks and travel for two or three, you’ll have fewer than three to do that before classes begin anew.

Finally, money should never be the sole reason for teaching. Leave mercenary activity to soldiers of fortune; instructors should be committed to teaching, not enticed into it. Summer teaching can be enormously rewarding in non-financial ways, so don’t touch it unless some of the following apply.

Summertime, and the Teaching is Easy

If your circumstances are right, there are some very good reasons to consider some sunshine teaching. Among them:

  • You want a different teaching experience
  • Students are generally more diverse and focused
  • It really is more laid back
  • You want to see if teaching is right for you

If you’ve been teaching large lecture groups and/or specialty seminars, summer teaching can offer you a nice change of pace. Many of the offerings are 100-level intro classes, but they’re usually small in size. You can get to know your students on a first-name basis in the summer and you’ll grade their work yourself. The latter is more appealing than it sounds; summer teaching has helped me refine both how I teach and how I test. There is no substitute for firsthand experience and immediate feedback when it comes to self-assessment.

You also have an opportunity to try new methods. Courses generally meet more often and for longer spans of time as you are cramming at least 36 contact hours into a short timeframe. This encourages you to think of ways to integrate self-learning, audio-visual materials, group activities, impromptu discussion and other creative teaching methods into your course. You’ll need to. Neither you nor your students can tolerate a two- or three-hour lecture!

The student body is different in the summer. First, they are self-selected and are there because they choose to be. Three types dominate: those seeking to accelerate their degree, those who are taking the course for a second time, and those who have been avoiding it. This might sound like a toxic brew, but it’s not. The first group consists of driven and self-motivated individuals who are unlikely to be slackers and the second bring some familiarity to the subject. They are also highly motivated to get it right the second time around. But the most interesting group is often those who have been avoiding your subject. I’ve gotten a lot of humanities-phobic scientists in summertime classes. Quite often they were rising juniors or seniors, well acclimated to university study. Often they were both my best and my most enthusiastic students. A little success in a course they’ve dreaded often leads them to “discover” that they have become “fascinated” by the humanities. Like many new converts, their enthusiasm runneth over.

No matter what their predisposition, summer students seldom take more than two classes in a given session and often just one. We always suggest supplementary sources for students to consult; summer students are the most likely group to consult these. I’ve even given heavier reading assignments in a six-week summer session that I have in some 13-week semesters and I’ve seldom fielded complaints over the work load.

And, yes, students do tend to be calmer and more laid back in the summer. Maybe it’s the Vitamin D in the sunshine; maybe it’s the warm days and cooling breezes. Maybe casual dress induces relaxed attitudes. All I know is that students tend to be more responsive, friendlier, and outwardly happier. And so am I. In fact, I credit summer teaching with making me feel really comfortable in the college classroom. It’s where I first experimented with a lot of things that are now standard tools in my instructor’s toolbox.

Are you a grad student who has never had a class of your own? Do you wonder whether you have what it takes to be a prof? Summer teaching is where many folks such as you get their feet wet. It will be enormously hard work if you’re a neophyte, but let’s face it — the job market is pretty dire right now so you might as well find out whether teaching makes you heart sing or your soul sting. If the latter, for heaven’s sake reassess your career goals.

For each of us the decision to teach or not teach is an individual one. As long as it’s an informed decision, either option has its virtues. As for me, no teaching or tanning this summer. I’m headed to the Shetlands and Orkney. Not even global warming can turn northern Scotland into a beach!

Other Resources:

1. Tips on summer school teaching from the Academy of Arts in San Francisco.

2. About.com advice for grad students who want to take the teaching plunge.

3. Professors Lynn Jacobs and Jeremy Hyman’s decision-making guide for students gives insight into things instructors should consider.


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