Running a Teaching Postdoc
It's not enough to bring a new Ph.D. to campus and say "teach," writes Gary DeCoker. These young academics need a real plan and real mentors.
Most postdocs arrive on campus with well-defined research agendas, but in teaching, a key part of many postdoc programs, they often express less confidence. Although teaching is sometimes called a solitary art, successful teaching requires a lot of support. As director of the ASIANetwork - Luce Foundation Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow Program, I’ve noticed time and again the benefits of careful planning and thoughtful mentorship.
Getting the Fellow to Campus
Both the fellows and the colleges have financial considerations that require flexibility. Many of our colleges hesitated to conduct expensive campus interviews for a one-year teaching fellow, so they cut costs by interviewing at professional conferences and through phone calls or Skype. As a result, fellows sometimes accepted a position without having seen the campus or met future colleagues. For that reason, it was crucial to have a faculty member available in the summer to meet the fellow upon arrival.
Housing presented a problem for some fellows. A few colleges provided a house or apartment, which was especially helpful in locations where the cost of living is high. Most fellows received partial reimbursement for moving costs. These arrangements take time, but they shouldn’t be neglected just because of the short length of the contract.
The fellow should be part of all new-faculty orientation activities. It is tempting to exclude them from discussions that don’t seem to apply, e.g., the tenure and promotion process, retirement benefits, faculty development opportunities, etc. Knowledge of these issues, however, could be useful in a future job interview, and time spent together with new faculty members and presenters will help the fellow make connections across campus. The same applies to new-faculty seminars and other activities held throughout the year. Regardless of the topic, the fellow should receive an invitation.
Virtually all of our teaching fellows commented on the importance of the mentoring relationship, which for many began with the appointment of a mentor soon after the contract was signed. Setting a specific time for a weekly meeting seemed to work best, especially if there were also opportunities for informal conversations. The topic of conversation between our fellows and mentors tended to focus on teaching, sometimes about assignments and attendance and other times about the nature of liberal arts learning and its place in American society. Although the meetings were for the fellow’s benefit, a number of our faculty mentors mentioned how much they, too, learned through these interactions. Discussions with the fellow seemed to open up new ideas and allowed them to see themselves, their students, and the college from a new perspective.
Office Space and Amenities
The teaching fellow’s office should be near those of other department faculty members and the mentor. A smaller office in the department is preferable to a more luxurious space somewhere on the other side of campus. In addition to hallway conversations and serendipitous meetings, being in close proximity to the department creates a sense of belonging and likely will result in the fellow spending more time on campus. Computers, keys, ID cards, parking, library privileges, wellness center access, and whatever other perks a full-time faculty member enjoys also should be extended to the fellow.
Letting the fellow come up with a couple favorite courses to teach may be the easiest approach, but other considerations could lead to a better experience. If the fellow’s area of expertise is new to the campus, course enrollments may be low. Making one of the first-semester courses fit general education requirements and/or cross-listing it with another department are ways to increase enrollment and gain exposure for the fellow.
Our fellows also appreciated the opportunity to create both lower- and upper-level courses and to develop courses in their specialization. If there is time and student interest, having the fellow repeat a course in a subsequent semester offers the opportunity to make revisions and see improvements in one’s teaching.
Team-teaching with an experienced faculty member can be a learning experience for both participants. If the course is based on the fellow’s expertise, the faculty member can gain knowledge and perhaps add a new course to the curriculum. For the fellow, working with an experienced professor has multiple benefits from course design and syllabus development to teaching strategies and assessment.
Professional Development Funds
A fellow’s contract should include a few thousand dollars for professional development. The fellow will likely want to attend a conference or two as part of the job search process and may also need research funds to finish up an ongoing project. Most of our host colleges provided a guaranteed amount for conference travel, usually about $1,000-$1,500. A few also opened up the opportunity to apply for additional, “in-house” funds through a competitive process. An application that will be read by colleagues requires a somewhat different approach than an external grant, and the process offers another opportunity for mentor-fellow collaboration. Financially, because professional development funds are reimbursements, not income, the tax benefits may make travel funds more appealing to the fellow than a compensation package consisting only of a salary.
Many colleges have faculty speaker bureaus that connect with local organizations looking for educational programming. Adding the fellow to the list of speakers is a good beginning, but it might take a more proactive approach to actually set up these opportunities, given that the fellow will only be on campus for a year or so. If the fellow is interested, the mentor should begin seeking out receptive organizations even before the fellow arrives on campus.
Additional Benefits for the College
Fellows can offer more to the college than courses. They can assist in building a library collection, adding laboratory equipment, implementing new technologies, or cataloging an art collection. Here, too, a defined project could be a justification for additional salary, funded by a grant or another budget source.
Meetings, Meetings, and More Meetings
For most faculty members, one of the benefits of a sabbatical is the exemption from meetings. But for someone just out of graduate school, these meetings can offer a significant career education. Departmental, divisional, and faculty meetings are a must. Some of our fellows shadowed their mentor at campus committee meetings. Observing adviser-advisee meetings and selection committee meetings for various student awards also can be a good learning opportunity. In most cases, it is helpful for the mentor to debrief the fellow after attending a meeting. Faculty meetings, especially, can be confusing. Helping the fellow realize that the most vocal participants might not be the most influential would be a lesson worth learning for the long term.
Preparation for the Job Market
One of the most obvious benefits for the teaching fellow is enhancing credentials for future job applications. To that end, the mentor should be prepared to write many letters of recommendation. Most fellows will have their graduate faculty vouch for their research expertise, so the mentor should focus primarily on teaching. Scheduling class observations throughout the semester will give the mentor and fellow a lot to talk about during the year and will also make it possible for the mentor to include specific examples when writing letters of recommendation.
New or Reconfigured Teaching Lines
Colleagues who have received funding to hire teaching fellows through the ASIANetwork - Luce Foundation program have reported that they have used enrollment numbers and student interest to convince their administration of the need for a new tenure-track position. Others have reconfigured existing positions or decided to continue to use teaching fellows to meet a specific need until additional funding becomes available. Benefits to the fellows are more obvious: Well over half of the ASIANetwork teaching fellows are now in tenure-track positions.
One, Two, or More Years
Our program supports a teaching fellow for one year. Some of our colleges, however, have decided to extend the position to two or more years. One year has the benefit of keeping the fellow’s focus on the tenure-track job market. The drawback is that during the first semester, the job application process can take up a lot of time. In addition, it is a bit early for the mentor to write a thorough letter of recommendation. Two years allows the fellow to focus less on the job search during year one and provides time for developing closer relationships with faculty and students. More than two years allows further integration into campus life, but can risk creating the expectation of a long-term contract. Funding, families, future plans, etc., also enter into the equation in complicated ways.
Adjuncts and Fellows
The hiring of adjunct faculty for low pay and few, if any, benefits is a trend that many academics lament, even while their colleges continue the practice. One way for colleges to live up to their own ideals would be to reduce the number of adjunct positions and increase those for teaching fellows. Much of the above advice could be applied to adjunct instructors, although it may be difficult to carry out because many adjuncts are teaching at more than one college or holding down other jobs. Better pay and benefits, careful mentorship, and integration into the community are things all graduate students and recent Ph.D.s deserve.
Gary DeCoker, professor of Japanese studies at Earlham College, directs the ASIANetwork - Luce Foundation Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow Program. This summer he will become executive director of ASIANetwork, which will move its headquarters to Earlham.
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