Sunday, August 5, 2018

Advice For The First Year Professor

As August accelerates and academics panic as their summer dreams/plans meet the harsh reality that one usually does not get done all that they want to do, it is time to give unsolicited advice to the new folks.  For great advice on how to manage one's mental and emotional well-being, see this thread.  I have some more tactical advice about expectations and getting through the first year, as I remember making the same mistake three times on the first day of teaching.
  • Be Realistic: you will not be able to produce as much research as you hope because your first time teaching on your own requires a great deal of time.  If you can get stuff out and under review before the semester starts, that would be great (note that summer expectation also meets the crashing reality of the time suck that a move almost always is).  
  • Be Competent: the first year is not the time to perfect your class.  You will put much effort into creating lectures, developing seminar strategies, figuring out what to assign (more on that in a moment), and everything else that comes with teaching.  You will get better with experience.  The focus should be, in my not so humble opinion, is to aim for clarity and coherence.  Being entertaining/dynamic/exciting comes later.  Labor intensive teaching tactics (simulations is what comes to mind to me) can be incorporated after you get the basics together.  If you don't burden yourself with too much work, then you can let your excitement for the material shine through, and that is what really engages most of the students--that you think this stuff is interesting.
    • The caveat here is that you teach at a liberal arts college, teaching expectations will be higher so always, always, always consult those around you for the local standards and expectations.
  • Be Conservative: don't assign the students piles and piles of readings you have not read before, and don't assign them piles and piles of assignments that you will have to grade.  Again, try to stay within the local standards, but remember, whatever they have to write, you have to grade (unless you have lots of teaching assistants--which is a good but sometimes challenging complication--as we are not trained to be managers of people).  Think about the timing of assignments--make sure you do right by the students and by you--don't assign stuff to be due the day after Thanksgiving, for instance.  Do give the students plenty of time to do the assignments.
  • Be Realistic re Courseware: The learning curve for you and for your students of your campus's crappy version of electronic teaching tools is steeper than it should be.  I have yet to meet a prof who is thrilled with how their system works.  Don't assume it will work well for you--be prepared to have alternative ways to deliver content/assignments/etc, and don't rely too heavily on the system until you have some experience with it.
  • Be Communicative: Talk to colleagues (find at least one you feel comfortable talking to) about what works, what does not, tendencies, tactics, and all that.  Experience matters, and you, at this moment, have little or none in general and definitely none at this place.  Talk to your students as well--check in and see if things are going well.  If the class looks confused, then go slower, give more examples and come back to that stuff again.
  • Be Calm: Unexpected stuff happens--I still get surprised by stuff in the classroom after twenty plus years.  I have had students answer phones and leave the class to finish the conversation.  I have had a guy try to make a romantic gesture to a student in a 600 person class in mid-lecture.  A campus tour guide led a group of 20 or so people through my class in mid-lecture.  When this stuff happens, you will realize the best way to react to it ... five minutes to three hours after it happened.  
  • Be Kind: Be nice to the staff in your department and at your university.  They are not servants but valuable colleagues whose jobs you really do not want.  They can make or break you over the long run.  If you are rude or obnoxious or dismissive in the first year, you are likely to pay for it even if you revise your behavior later.  Also, it is the right thing to do.
  • Be Focused (thanks, Phil): Say no when you can to stuff that takes away from research and teaching.  Everyone has to do service, but do what is expected of assistant profs at your place, not what is expected of associate or full profs.  That is, don't agree to serve on admin heavy campus committees or those of the profession when your local department does not care.  Don't join edited volume projects that take you away from your main research unless the networking opportunities are very good.  You will have more demands on your time than you thought possible.  So, say yes when you have to, say no when you don't.
 There is more advice to give, but one of the iron laws of teaching is that the more reading assign, the less the students will do.  The first year is going to be hard as you will face lots of competing demands for your time.  The advice above may sound like I don't care about teaching, but it is mostly about how to get started without inundating oneself.  Not drowning is the first step towards competitive swimming.

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