I'm a Professor. Now What?

March 11, 2009

In 1978, I got my first teaching job — at a public high school. At the conclusion of the interview, my new principal asked, “What are your qualifications for teaching anthropology?” I retorted, “I can spell it within 75 percent accuracy.” We laughed, but I was 50 percent serious and a 100 percent panicked. I was in a graduate history program at the time, and my sole training in anthro was one undergraduate course six years earlier.

You new hires or those who will be starting in the fall can probably relate. You have visions of health care benefits dancing in your head, which you might need for meds to counter your anxiety. Your first year’s courses are likely to be plucked from the college catalogue, not your file drawer. How on earth do you prepare to teach students you don’t know a course that isn’t yours? The basics:

  • Relax.
  • Don’t reinvent the wheel.
  • Ignorance can be bliss.
  • Say goodbye to grad school.
  • Haul blocks.
  • Black and white goes with everything.
  • Ratchet up, not down.
  • Function follows form.
  • Be clear and fair. (The rest will follow.)

Telling someone to relax is a cliché, but you need to remind yourself that you belong. Someone once described the transition from grad student to professor as moving from a role in which it was assumed you know nothing, to one in which it’s presumed you know everything. Because you don’t know everything, it’s natural to have nightmares of students exposing every gap in your knowledge. Natural … but unlikely. Even if your students are exceptionally bright, you’ll still be the best-educated person in the room. Begin course preparations secure in the knowledge that you know things they don’t.

Second cliché: Don’t reinvent the wheel. If you’re teaching something from the catalogue, find those who taught it before and ask them to share thoughts and syllabi. Colleagues are the go-to source on student culture, how you should frame your classes, and institutional expectations. So ask. Bonus: You come off as a departmental team player.

There are also lots of syllabi online. If you Google “syllabus exchange,” chances are good there will be several for your subject. Likewise, news and discussion groups such as those on H-Net have information on where you can obtain syllabi, and many profs simply post theirs to the Web.

As you contemplate organization, check out a few textbooks. The goal is not to parrot them, but to see what they deem basic and how they structure the flow of information. You can get a lot of ideas just by looking at the indices to see which people, terms, and ideas get heavy play. Some texts have sections such as “For Further Study.” Students never look at these, but fabulous lesson ideas can be extrapolated.

If you’re assigned a class out of your bailiwick, chill. One of the best-kept secrets in academe is that ignorance can be bliss; it’s often easier to teach things you don’t know much about. When academics specialize, they wander so deeply into the Forest of Nuance that they lose sight of the Trees of Perspective. OK, lame analogy — but the point is that a well-educated person (you!) knows how to research new things. I’ll bet you’ve taken a few courses that didn’t rock your world, and long ago learned how to distinguish relevant from mere detail. You probably also learned how to “read” like a grad student; you know how to sound authoritative on books, articles, and studies you’ve merely skimmed. You can use these skills to gather information efficiently.

Now that you’ve recalled graduate school, stop thinking about it. A common mistake among fledgling profs is forgetting that undergraduate education isn’t grad school writ small. You’ve spent years discussing complex ideas with fellow grad students, have been inspired by brilliant mentors, and are jazzed by your research. Cool, but your new reality is that many of your students have never even heard of the concepts and topics whose depths you’ve been plumbing. In grad school we dissect knowledge a micron at a time; in undergrad classes we haul it out in blocks, especially if there’s a 100 or 200 number attached.

Get the conceptual basics in order before you even think of adding complexity. Right now you’ve got the “Do I know enough?” jitters; you’ll soon find out how little you can presume students know. Begin your lesson planning by laying out the topic in black and white. It may seem counterintuitive, but it’s much easier to ratchet up than down. You’ll not do any long-term damage if you’ve initially aimed too low — you can always call your efforts “review” or “concept-building.” If you lead with the arcane stuff, though, before the drop period ends your class roster will look like there’s been a cholera epidemic.

Now for something so obvious it gets overlooked. Maybe in architecture form follows function, but in academia it’s the opposite. Don’t forget to take note of what kind of course you’re teaching. Is it a lecture course? A readings symposium? A lab? A research seminar? What’s the enrollment cap? These things dictate how your course functions. For massive lectures, you’ll need to accumulate a lot of information and think of engaging ways to present it; if it’s a small-group symposium, your role might be that of a folksy facilitator.

Another well-kept secret is this: Preparing upper-level courses is easier than intro classes. The amount of thinking might be greater, but the higher the course number, the more work students do on their own. Plus, once you breach those 300 and 400-levels, you’re back on the specialized turf you’re used to.

The one thing students want to know from the outset is what’s expected of them. Give serious thought to how you can come off as clear and fair. Do this and lot of other things will fall in place.

Helpful Links:

1.The U.S. Army teaches its commanders lesson plan development. Although that model isn’t directly applicable to profs, one must admire the the attention paid to planning, concept, praxis and assessment.

2. Tips from the Center for Instructional Development and Research at the University of Washington.

3. The University of Hawaii -- Honolulu Community College maintains an extensive site for teachers. Scroll down to see tips on lesson planning.

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