'On Course': New Guide to First Semester of Teaching

A frequent refrain of new faculty members, fresh from graduate school, is that earning a Ph.D. didn't train them to lead a course. A new book -- On Course: A Week-by-Week Guide to Your First Semester of College Teaching (Harvard University Press) -- aims to help such professors. The author is James M.

May 14, 2008

A frequent refrain of new faculty members, fresh from graduate school, is that earning a Ph.D. didn't train them to lead a course. A new book -- On Course: A Week-by-Week Guide to Your First Semester of College Teaching (Harvard University Press) -- aims to help such professors. The author is James M. Lang, an associate professor of English at Assumption College and former assistant director of the Searle Center for Teaching Excellence at Northwestern University. Lang responded to a series of questions about his new book.

Q: One of the first topics you discuss is attire and the instructor-student relationship. What's your advice and how do these topics relate?

A: The main function that I think attire can play in the classroom is to help define the relationship between instructor and student. Excessively casual dress implies that you're (trying to be) not much different from the students, and that your classroom is more of a level playing field; if you're up there in a three-piece suit, by contrast, and they're all in jeans and T-shirts, you are making it clear that you are holding the scepter.

One of the first challenges that new instructors will face -- and especially new instructors who are close in age to their students -- will be to define a clear boundary between themselves and their students, and to establish that they ultimately are responsible for what happens in the room, as well as for the grades that conclude the semester. For that reason, I would suggest that new instructors choose a minimum attire of business casual. Anything shy of that, in my opinion, may compromise the authority of a new teacher in the classroom, and potentially encourage students into behaviors that disrupt learning.

However, for folks who have been teaching for a few years, and who are comfortable and confident in their authority in the classroom, I don't think attire makes that much of a difference. I've been wearing jeans and a collared shirt to class every day now for many years. Sometimes I even wash them.

Q: You write a lot about the importance of variety -- in lectures, assignments, etc. Why is this so important? Is this difficult for people who see themselves as having a particular lecturing style or strength?

A: Most academics can easily point out hasty generalizations when they appear in arguments in their disciplines, but then seem to have a blind spot for this logical fallacy when it comes to their teaching. In other words, while they would never argue that one experiment establishes a truth about the universe, they operate in the classroom as if their one experience as a student has established the correct way to teach. So if they learned best by reading and listening to lectures, they assign lots of reading and give lectures.

But of course while they were hungrily lapping up lectures, the student next to them was bored to tears, desperately hoping for a chance to speak with his peers or the instructors. So I always suggest that instructors need to move beyond whatever worked for them in the classroom, and continue to experiment with new teaching styles, and vary their teaching formats. Every time you try a new format, you will lose some students and gain some. The only way to reach them all, it seems to me, is to have a range of teaching strategies that you use on a regular basis.

I would also suggest that even for a student who loves lectures, forcing that student out of her comfort zone -- asking her to engage in a discussion or work with he peers -- has benefits as well. That's what education is about, after all: pushing us beyond our comfortable places, and helping us see the world in new ways.

Q: In your discussion of classroom discussions that don't necessarily work, you note the factor of groggy students who may or not be prepared and/or fully awake. What are the best ways for professors to think about their students' real ability to be engaged? How do you balance empathy for students' lives with the need for a prepared classroom?

A: You should have understanding and empathy for their complicated lives outside of the classroom-students are wrestling with new freedoms, falling in and out of love, taking four other classes, dealing with family situations, etc. -- but you also have to maintain your standards. If a student comes to me and says they pulled an all-nighter for another class, and therefore didn't get the reading done, I assure them that it doesn't offend me personally, and I know stuff happens -- but they still have to take the quiz. Obviously when students have more serious problems outside of the classroom, I'm willing to offer other options, but I don't think we should excuse work for extracurricular activities or life events. If you sign up for the class, you have to do the work I laid out in the syllabus. I may give you some extra time, but you still have to do the work.

Q: What are the most common mistakes new professors make in grading, and how can they avoid them?

A: One very common mistake stems from great intentions-offering students too much commentary or feedback on their work. I've seen instructors who have written more on student papers than the students wrote themselves. Research on student responses to instructor feedback suggests that offering more than a couple of specific suggestions on an exam or piece of writing causes students simply to shut down and put the work aside and hope for better on the next one.

Most of us, though, want students to read our responses to their work and to learn from them, to incorporate our suggestions into their next piece of writing or exam. We can facilitate that by holding our tongues a bit -- don't enumerate the 12 problems in a student's paper; identify the two or three that are most crucial, and ask them to focus on those issues in the next paper. Once they have resolved those issues, you can move on to the next two or three. This strategy not only should lead to better learning, but it should save new instructors some time as well!

Q:Your section on student ratings focuses on official evaluations. What about unofficial evaluations? Do you advise professors to check RateMyProfessors.com? Do you check out your ratings there?

A: I would advise new instructors not to look at their ratings, but this advice will probably meet with the same acceptance as the "advice" I give my 3-year old twins not to throw the ball in the house. Some things in life are impossible to resist. They're going to throw that ball, and new teachers, who of course will want to know how they are doing, are going to look at RMP.

In my opinion, RMP operates on the GIGO principle -- garbage in, garbage out. The questions they ask are ill-defined and unrelated to whether or not students learn anything in a course, so the answers you get are irrelevant at best and harmful at worst. Do your best either to resist looking or to take whatever you see there with a massive grain of salt.

Q: You have a chapter on staying fresh during the course of a semester -- what about a career. Based on thinking so much about the first year of teaching, what would you advise those in their 20th years?

A: Become a student again. The farther away you get from the position of students, the easier it can be to fall into familiar teaching patterns and forget about whether students are learning from your teaching. The musician Tom Waits once said that, for a musician, your fingers can become like dogs on your instrument-they keep wanting to go to the same familiar places. The same is true with teachers; when you find teaching strategies that are comfortable and seem to work, you keep going back to them, even though what feels comfortable and effective to you might not seem that way to your students.

When you put yourself back into a formal teaching-learning transaction as the student, it can really force you to think about the process in a new way. In recent years I've taken a drawing class, a scuba diving class, and piano lessons. Each of those courses or lessons led to a change in what I was doing in the classroom that semester, as I saw my own teachers using strategies that either seemed very stale or very innovative to me.


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