Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Teaching For Two Decades

This week marks the start of a third decade of teaching.  Yep, I have been around while.  I started teaching as a Visiting Instructor (didn't quite have my PhD yet) at the University of Vermont in the fall of 1993.  My very first day of class, the first time I ever taught on my own, I forgot to bring the syllabi (pink as in blushingly embarrassed) to hand out to the first course that day--Intro to International Relations.  I taught another section of it two hours later and forgot to bring the syllabi again.  Oh, and I was teaching a three-three load that year which meant that I had a third opportunity that day to forget my syllabi and, indeed, I did.  So, a massive choke job on the first day of class. 

That first year I just aimed at being clear--not entertaining, not being insightful, not anything but being organized and perhaps not to talk too fast.  That I was teaching the same class three times a day both helped and hurt.  It allowed me to refine the lecture each time I gave it, but it mean that I kept on wondering in the 2nd and 3rd class, "have I said this already in this class?"  I had really good, extensive notes, but I didn't read them word for word.  The hardest part I had then is the hardest part I have now--trying to facilitate a discussion as I had no teaching assistants and the classes were small.  The students were quite bright and into the material, as Intro to IR sells itself.  I didn't have much in the way of stunts (six-sided tug of war, Footloose video, and apples/oranges/frisbees came later). 

I was nervous at first--hence forgetting the syllabi the first day.  But I found speaking a lot not to be a problem--who would have thunk that?  The hardest part was the week I was food poisoned.  I tried to teach anyway and just read from my notes from a class I TA'ed for in grad school.  Oy.  Not fun. 

Twenty years later, and I am no longer teaching undergrad classes at my graduate school of International Affairs (although that may change as the university here prizes undergrad enrollment).  I have taught at all levels over the years--grad, undergrad, honors seminars, mid-level mildly specialized classes, even, gasp, American/Texas Public Policy.  My all-time worst experience was teaching Qualitative Methods at the graduate level.  It was my first time (and last) teaching a methods class, I could have designed the class better, and I was not dealt the best hand.  My favorite class?  I would have to say that three stand out:
  • the first time teaching the massive Intro to IR class at McGill (600 students).  It was the first time in years that I had taught the class, so it was great to get back to the classic and inherently interesting stuff that sucked me into this business long ago.  It was fun to experiment with some new ideas to make the class work in such a big room.  And work it did.  I got a standing ovation at the end of the course--I will always remember that.
  • the honors seminar on Separatism I taught.  The students were so bright and engaged that I didn't have to do much but ask a question at the beginning of class and then ride the discussion until the end of the session.  One of the frustrations that made it easier for me to leave was that the least well suited to teach that class made a secret deal to monopolize it. 
  • the grad class on civil war.  For one, it was a defiant move on my part since some of my older and much more narrow minded senior colleagues found Civil War not to be a suitable subject for IR.  Yep, they were out of touch, and I enjoyed going ahead against their advice.  Sure, I paid for it with a delayed promotion (but I would have found some other way not to be sufficiently submissive), but so be it.  The class was small but had some terrific grad students who looked at stuff in ways that made me learn quite a bit.  
While I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I went to grad school, I accidentally found the profession that suits me the best for a variety of reasons, and only some have to do with teaching.  But, yes, I like to hear myself talk, and I like to make folks laugh.  I have tried to stay on the right side of the line between entertaining and educating, and I think that I mostly got across the ideas I sought to explain.  I don't like grading nor do I enjoy letters of recommendation.  But I do get much out of talking to college aged folks (and older grad students).  Their curiosity, their interest, and their light bulb moments make teaching quite enjoyable indeed.  When I bump into former students a year or two or three later, and they say how much they got out of my courses--that makes all of the grading worthwhile. 

When it comes to that two-sided nature of this business--teaching and research--I can imagine doing only one half and being happy, and that would be the teaching side.  Research without folks to share it with can get lonely, frustrating and chock full of rejection.  The combination of teaching and research is very much like a double stuff oreo--heaps of goodness.

I fully expect to teach for about another two decades.  So, at this half-way point, I can only think of one thing:

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