Sunday, October 11, 2009

Making teaching a reward

Over at the The Philosophy Smoker, there's a bit of discussion (in the context of the job market, of course) about what makes for a desirable position in academic philosophy, especially with regard to teaching load. I agree with the sentiment, expressed several times over at TPS, that graduate school subtly encourages us to value research over teaching. We budding philosophers naturally absorb the values and priorities of those who teach us, and numerous exceptions aside, we were taught by faculty at Research 1 universities who naturally come to value research more than teaching. This isn't a surprise, really. R1 faculty don't teach as much as those at other institutions and don't get tenure or promotion on the basis of their teaching. Hence, as grad students, our conceptions of the professional lives that are desirable are likely to be those of our graduate instructors.

But here's the naked facts: The overwhelming majority of academic philosophers aren't at R1's teaching grad students. For them, teaching is what pays the bills and absorbs the majority of their time. And even those at R1's must teach. Given this, you can't expect to avoid teaching entirely. I therefore subscribe to the following hypothesis: You will not have a satisfying academic career unless you enjoy teaching, and you should not consider an academic career unless you can imagine yourself enjoying teaching.

Easier said than done of course: Most anyone who is even a smidgen serious about teaching knows it's hard work. Time consuming, yes, but also intellectually more challenging than one expects. And of course, it's complicated by the fact that whether or not you succeed at it is only half dependent on your own efforts. There's those pesky students after all. And I often wonder if the aforementioned bias in favor of research over teaching, acquired in grad school, is something that graduate schools need to counteract. In other words, not only do grad schools need to educate people to be good teachers, they also need to educate them to enjoy the tasks that will almost certainly dominate the remainder of their students' professional lives.

But all is not lost even if grad schools fail on this score. For you can learn how to enjoy teaching while on the job. Here are some things that have helped me, but I'd really like to hear from others what they do to make teaching a more rewarding experience.

How to enjoy teaching
Don't be afraid to cede some control. Sometimes we need to let our students have a more prominent role in our classrooms. Let them guide discussion, develop the exam questions, or critique each others' work
Share your research. We talked about this recently, but I think sharing your research humanizes you in the eyes of your students and creates a more authentic and engaged environment for discussion.
Vary your preparations. I've learned a lot of philosophy that I wouldn't have learned otherwise because I've had to teach outside the usual intro's and courses in my specialization. This is a way to ensure that teaching helps you learn.
Find a teaching community. Find some people to talk about teaching with. Or, you know, go looking for a blog or something.
Realize you're a freak. One of the most important things I've learned about teaching is that those of us who are attracted to university-level teaching are freaks. Usually, we were very skilled as students and could probably have learned effectively from most any instructor. But most of our students find the material we teach challenging, even off putting. They need effective teaching. I try to remind myself of this so as to sustain my empathy for students and their learning situation.
Once in a while, start from scratch. It can be highly gratifying to see a course all the way from its origins in a course proposal, through the syllabus, to the end of the first time you teach it.
Watch someone else teach. Everyone in higher ed teaches, yet for the most part, we rarely see anyone else do it.

So Wakers: How do you make teaching more rewarding for yourself?


  1. 1. I share the dissatisfaction with graduate school focus on teaching. I found (in my time) that it was also motivated by a belief by some in R1s that good teaching just happens naturally when you know the subject matter well. So there really wasn't much of an "art of teaching" to master outside of just mastering the material through rigid research orientation.

    I've always said that I think it would be a plus if graduate programs gave training in teaching *some* focus for graduate students. To their credit, some do this, but most don't and I don't see this changing in the immediate future.

    2. I think your suggestions are excellent, Michael. I'll add one, and add to another:

    a) (adding to the list): don't over-prepare. This is partly an off-shoot of the 'cede control' suggestion. Too many instructors work too diligently to prepared outlined lectures. While nice and noble in spirit, I've found (in my own experience) that too much preparation leads to an uninteresting and stiff class. If you want good discussion, learn how to under-prepare in just the right way.

    b) (commenting on a list item): I think it is a shame that most teachers (that I know anyway) do not like being observed. I wish more teachers were openly inviting to other teachers to come and watch them teach. Every good teacher has an idiosyncratic model, and it's a horrible shame that we don't have customs and practices organized around making use of those models by seeing what other people do at our own schools.

  2. I think there are a variety of ways to cede control -- for example, today my Ethics classes will be doing peer review of drafts. I don't read drafts because each section is 50 students -- so, a pile of 100 drafts needing substantial comments is simply impossible.

    Recently I've figured out how to use the on-line course management software to manage routine and boring tasks. That frees up time in the classroom to have discussions or do small group work.

  3. First, have fun. You are doing philosophy, even if you aren't talking to professional philosophers. This is supposed to be what you love.

    Second, make those frustrating, persistent habits of students an object of study. Why do they use cliches and trade in the least concrete and most vague language? Perhaps they are afraid of being wrong. Why do they turn in papers that you both know are under-prepared? Perhaps they manage time poorly and you can do things to help them with this. Etc. etc. If you can help yourself and your students diagnose the underlying causes of these things, the pursuit becomes all that much more interesting and rewarding for both of you.


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