Thursday, July 26, 2007

Tips for Starting Grad Instructors

I had lunch today with one a former student of mine named Andrew. He'll be starting the philosophy Ph.D program in the fall at the University of Kansas, and is pretty excited about getting started both as a student and as an instructor. He asked me for a couple of pointers about teaching for the first time (he will be heading up some discussion sections of Introduction to Philosophy), so I gave him what I thought would be some useful advice about what seems to work in the classroom, and also about certain bad things and practices I've learned to avoid. Afterward, I thought it might be a good idea to ask the general audience here for advice for starting instructors like Andrew.

What advice would you give a first-time graduate student instructor? What should one try to do? What should one try to avoid? The subject is pretty open. What's the best way to cultivate a good relationship with the class? Should you lecture more? How do you deal with problem students? Should you be more authoritarian, or more "buddy-buddy"? There's a lot of ground here that can be covered obviously.

I've already emailed Andrew and told him I would post this question here, so he'll surely be checking in to see what advice people have to give him. If we have any other grad student readers, perhaps our collective suggestions can be useful for them as well (as well as for us!).


  1. This is a great and timely topic. I'll submit two that may seem obvious, but I think that in the end they're quite profound.

    First, the best capital you have in the classroom is credibility -- not knowledge, not kindness, and not intelligence. This means occasionally having to admit the weakness of a weak position. Believe it or not, you get loads of credibility for admitting the weaknesses of a strong position too. To show no weakness is to display an infallibilty which, even if true and well executed, no one can really bring themselves to believe (e. g. the Pope...)

    I think most instructors' instinct is to go to the mat for a position they are trying to teach in order to show that they are highly intelligent and not to be trifled with. It's far better to admit to not knowing something, jotting it down, and emailing a student later (definitely something to consider, students both love and remember unsolicited email like that) or bringing it up next class than to take a guess and put it forward uncompromisingly as the right answer. You might get some points for being quick, but if it doesn't turn out to be true and someone finds that out on Wikipedia later that night, you've probably lost that student and probably whoever else he or she tells. Even if they don't figure it out for two years, the course becomes that much more worthless to the student and a blight on the discipline. Everyone likes to prove the know-it-all philosopher wrong so they can write the philosopher off and remain comfortable that anything goes. Humility does a lot more to stop that than trying to look like all of philosophical knowledge is at the tip of your tongue.

    Building credibility via knowledge and humility makes classes go really well because occasionally you'll need to spend it, be it on a problem student, a set of late grades, an unforeseen error on an exam, and so on. It also gives students a great model, makes their philosophy course memorable, and, if they go on to become a philosopher, you may have a chance at leading them down the path towards not being an annoying philosopher.

    (Plus, it's very Socratic, hence Michael's title for the blog!)

    Second, there's a debate about whether you should "put the fear of God" into your students on the first day, demonstrating how much they do not want to screw with you and how you take zero in terms of crap from anyone. I know a few people for whom this works very well. I tried it one year to see if it gained me some authority. I never got that class back. They may have feared me briefly, but they met me in office hours and suddenly the fear didn't make sense. I'm not that guy -- it's not my personality to "put the fear of God" in, really, anyone I meet. So it made no sense for me to try it with students.

    So there's no right answer here. It's only a good idea if it's genuine. If scaring them would be an act because you're really a nice person, be a nice person on the first day. Students appreciate genuine more than anything else. For me, I like to sell philosophy on the first day as very important and very inspirational, and I don't lose classes anymore doing this.

    All this said, even if you're a very nice person and act it, you should still take zero in terms of crap from anyone.

  2. Excellent topic, should be plenty of useful comments. Firstly I just want to clarify a graduate instructor in this context isn't giving lectures they are running tutorials (discussion sessions) on other people's lectures is that right?

    I strongly agree with Adam, the job of an instructor is at least in part to model good philosophical practice and I think admitting that you don't know something, then going and researching it and following it up is an excellent lesson to give the students in intellectual humility.

    I've a huge number of tips on this subject so I am going to post them over the next few days, rather than all at once, otherwise I will get nothing else done!

    My first tip is that your role is mainly to develop the student's philosophical skills. As such in the lesson planning stage I try to have a skill that I am particularly aiming to work on in each lesson and an activity which supports that skill. This will usually involve identifying the skill and how the students are using it. Ideally you have an over-all plan for what skills will be developed in the course and how these will reinforce and be related to each other.

    A couple of links to documents about thinking skills and the use of these are here:

  3. Congratulations to the fellow who's headed to Kansas. I'll offer what advice I can to this important topic. (Full disclosure: I am a graduate instructor at Nebraska.)

    In addition to the important points that Adam and David listed, which I agree with completely, I would add that it's important that a graduate instructor keep in mind or try to imagine what it's like for the undergrad who is brand new to philosophy. When you inevitably have to grade papers, you will find that a large part of teaching philosophy has to do with teaching undergrads how to write a good philosophical paper. This is an experience for the typical undergrad that is both new and strange, and they probably won't get it right away. This creates a lot of worry for the typical undergraduate, and I see it as the instructor's job to alleviate that worry somewhat. Only somewhat; they still have to finish the paper, after all, but they do need to be taught how to do philosophy.

    And, in teaching them how to do philosophy, they do need to be taught what clarity means, in so far as a philosophical paper is concerned. This is the thing that (I believe) is most maddening to the paper-grader and that handicaps the undergrad's performance the most; lack of clarity. Most undergrads will not come in knowing how to be as rigorously clear as a philosopher would expect, and what they view as an episode of "Well, what else could I have said?!?" will be for the instructor one of "Explain more here." I think that helping them to get their minds around this concept - that one should try to be as specific as possible and to avoid general statements that in ordinary life one wouldn't hesitate to utter - will go a long way towards helping the undergrad succeed in philosophy (and in the real world, too).

  4. Okay so posting the links didn't work too well that way since they were too long. Still I have learnt my lesson here should be those links:
    questions for good thinking

    Thought encouraging questions

  5. Lots of good ideas here.

    Before some more concrete ideas though:I can't imagine any situation in which I would want my students to fear me or the material I teach. I can understand how new teachers may be frightened or worried they will be exposed as fraudulent. The best reaction to this, however, is not to gin up ways of asserting your expertise, power, etc. I honestly think worries of this sort are overblown: Students want to like and respect their instructors, particularly graduate instructors, since they are closer in age (usually) to them than to the regular faculty. They will likely cede you authority unless you do something to discredit yourself or give them reason to doubt your authority. Of course, the classroom should be an organized, civil, and respectful place, and yes, the instructor needs to have enough backbone to resist student challenges. But I think it's unhealthy (and a recipe for burnout) if you enter the classroom with an adversarial mindset. (I'd endorse Adam's points about humility here as well.)

    Some other thoughts:
    • Be enthusiastic about your discipline and don't be unwilling to explain what excites you about it. In many cases, your course will be the only philosophy course students take, so leave a positive impression of philosophy and philosophers.
    • Emphasize that philosophy is hard. (Justin touched on this in his comments about philosophical writing.) I tell students that I got a C in my first philosophy class, which seems to put them at ease a little. I've observed that students very quickly sort themselves into those who can philosophize and those who can't, as if it were a kind of natural talent. Obviously, this tends to discourage learning and engagement in the latter group.
    • Don't overprepare for each meeting. I've observed many younger teachers who arrive for a one-hour course with ten pages of notes. Too much -- and some good spontaneous interaction can get squeezed out.
    • If you are an assistant to a regular faculty member, resist the students' desire to get you to criticize, etc., that faculty member. (A little good-natured joking about the faculty member's neckties, verbal tics, etc. is probably OK.) It's not only impolitic, but also contrary to academic ethics to do so. Students may come to you asking you to clarify the lecture, for instance: Do that, but not in a way that suggests the lecture was itself unclear, haphazard, etc.

  6. I'll add a few thoughts here:

    1. I strongly agree with the foregoing comments about humility and knowledge. I would add that you want your students to trust you. This is related to credibility, but goes beyond it as well. I think many professors and instructors unwittingly create barriers between themselves and their students by being harsh, abrasive, and a bit arrogant. Nothing will send a class downhill faster. If students have a sense that you are on their side, they will be much more willing to do what you ask. If you come across as adversarial, you will lose them.

    2. A practical tip here that I still employ is to give the students a hard copy of a list of grading criteria that I employ when grading their papers. This not only helps them learn how to write philosophy papers before they do so, but it also helps to eliminate complaints about grades after the papers are returned. And when questions about grading do come up, I can simply point out which of the criteria they failed to satisfy.

    3. As a graduate instructor it takes time to learn what your own natural teaching style is, with respect to how you relate to students, how much discussion you employ, and so on. I emphasize discussion in all of my classes, because I think it is central to learning how to do philosophy.

    4. Teaching is a craft, in the sense that it involves a set of skills that can be developed and honed. And I believe it is one that you must constantly be working at in order to excel. As students change, and as you are on different campuses, adjustments in your expectations and style of teaching may be needed.

  7. Create a set of warm up activities, which if possible will be related back to the class content. (And maybe the skill you are working on in this lesson)

    These are great for getting the philosophical blood flowing, and can be used not just at the start, but if you feel the students are flagging throwing in a warm up can pep things ups. The aim of these warm ups is to get people thinking, to make it more fun and to create a collaborative thinking environment.

    I've personally got a fair few of these and will do a post about these later on. One of my favourites is:
    "You are trapped on a desert island, and a crate washes up. You go to crack it open with your handy crowbar fashioned out of coconuts but before you do you think on no what if it is a... What is the worst thing that could be in that box?"

    It is surprising and disturbing how often students say: "my parents"

  8. Apologies these are going to be reasonably random in terms of order.

    1. I agree with Michael don't over prepare and over script everything that happens in the classroom, you need to be reacting to what the students are concerned about and interested in as well as providing content.

    Do however have a few good questions up your sleeve just in case things go dead. This will make you more comfortable and confident.

    2. On the humility front, if you get the sense that something isn't working don't be afraid to stop and ask the students if they agree and if so how to make it work. Usually they are far more afraid of you and looking stupid than you are of them so don't expect them to volunteer that they don't understand.

    3. In the words of Depreche Mode "Enjoy the Silence" You will ask questions and sometimes get silence. Sometimes this is because the question is too complex or they aren't following, sometimes this is just because their energy leaves are low and/or people don't like to take the risk of looking stupid that question answering entails. Don't be too quick to rush to fill the silence, count to ten in your head before you fill that void. Use humour to prod them into answering, I often like to say "I can be silent for a really long time if I want..." or "Well you guys are paying me to be here, so is silence really all you want?"

    4. Small groups talk more readily than big groups so if discussion isn't working you can break them up into pairs and then have a group discussion afterwards. You can also do other things like combine the pairs into large groups and so on.

    5. Ask open questions not closed questions. by this I mean asking questions which don't just have a yes/no or factual answer opens up discussion.

    6. Sometimes you will find a particular student shuts down discussion by always having something to say. These students come in many flavours, from the experienced student coming back into the class to the single subject ranter (It is all to do with X...) and they need to be controlled so the other students can participate. There are many ways to do this, from using a talking stick, to assigning them a specific role, to having a quiet word with them.

    7. Set up some ground rules from the start. I usually do this by having a fairly controversial discussion in the first tutorial. I then say at the end of it, "right we should probably establish some base rules, lets think of the ways that discussion could have been absolutely terrible, the tutorial from hell and then ways we could avoid this"

    Some things that should be in there are:
    Attack ideas not people
    Don't own ideas
    There is no such thing as a bad suggestion, even wrong answers take us closer to figuring out the right answer
    Be polite
    respect others holding their own viewpoints even if they seem mad to you
    Let everyone have a say, if you notice you are always answering let someone else have a go.

    8. Establish what the students expect and what you are going to deliver in the first class. Often their expectations are wildly inaccurate, and this needs to be defused. You don't have to give them what they want, but you should keep it in mind.

    9. Be a reflective teacher, consider what worked and what didn't and keep a track of this for future teaching.

    10. Facilitate, don't determine. Your role is not to be the Sage on the Stage but instead as the guide on the side. As such while sometimes answering questions is appropriate often this misses an opportunity to have an interesting and useful discussion. Rather than saying "x is wrong" why not ask "can anyone think of a counter example to x".

    11. One way to do this is to chart the discussion, it keeps you busy which keeps your mouth shut. It also helps the students get a sense of the argument and a feeling of progress.

    12. Praise good skill usage, say things like, "nice counter example"

    13. Make time at the end to sum up and note progress, even if this is negative, emphasise that this is still progress.

  9. Thanks to everyone for all of the helpful advice. Unfortunately, I won't know what tips work for me until I actually get into the classroom; there's nothing quite like experience to shake all your preconceptions!

    I'll post some initial impressions on advice that's worked or hasn't once classes start.


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