Friday, September 7, 2018

Quarter Century of Teaching: Time Flies When One Professes

I had a sudden realization that I started teaching on my own twenty-five years ago.  While my memory is lousy, I will always remember that first day.  Why?  I was so nervous I forgot to bring the syllabi to the first class.  And then repeated that mistake an hour or two later for the next course I was teaching.  And then again a couple of hours later.  It was the same course--Intro to IR--taught to three different groups of fresh-faced Vermonters and non-Vermonters.

Despite that start, I loved teaching Intro to IR. At first, I just aimed to be clear and organized.  I had to print transparencies out so I could use the overhead projector (yeah, I am old), but I felt compelled to present outlines from day 1.  To keep me focused and to give the students a roadmap for the class.  I had really good notes to start.  As time went on, I focused more on making the stuff engaging, sometimes crossing the line of edutainment (the first year I found youtube, well, yeah).

One thing that has remained consistent over 25 years: I am far more comfortable lecturing than running discussion.  Which makes my move six years ago kind of strange--moving from the comfy lecturing at my old job to doing entirely seminars at my new one.  As a mid-career shake up, it was a good thing. It has helped me avoid becoming stale or complacent. I am still figuring out how to teach MA students who are mostly aiming to work in the policy world, a very different audience with different objectives than MA/PhD students seeking to go into academia.

I still do teach PhD students, but the primary class I have taught them here at NPSIA is a workshop aimed mostly at getting through their dissertation proposals and a bit of professionalization smuggled in.  It is an interesting but challenging course, as we are a multidisciplinary program, which means reading dissertation proposal pieces far, far from my expertise.  While we want our students to produce International Affairs dissertations, some are far more economic (as in the discipline, not just the topic) and others are more poli sci-ish, which are more familiar to me.  This is the third time I am teaching it and the first time back to back.  Last year's was mostly a success as most students had defendable proposals by the end of the year.  This year will be new in one minor way: will be at night.  I have been advocating more classes at night to allow our Phd students (and maybe MA students) be part-time and work in or near government, and now I am joist on my own petard. 

The really big change in my teaching is that my students used to guess what my party identity was.  Yep, I slammed both left and right, mocking both in the course of my lectures, so, except for some pushback at Texas Tech (eval: you should never teach this class in the south--did I talk too fast?), I think I did a pretty good job of being dispassionate. That eroded a bit when I would talk about the Iraq war and identify the disbanding of the Iraqi army in May of 2003 as the dumbest decision in US foreign policy history.  What, of course, killed this ability to appear to be non-partisan was this blog and twitter.  Students, if they were interested, could figure out where I stand.  Oops.

The bigger challenge is teaching US Foreign Policy in the Trump Era.  I simply cannot normalize Trump, so I make it clear that I am biased--that I think Trump and his crew are burning down American institutions like no other recent administration. So, the class spends the first two hours of each session asking how things used to work and may work again--because my focus has always been on how each institution (State, NSC, Pentagon, etc) operate--and then how are they dysfunctioning under Trump.  It worked, more or less, the last winter.  We shall see how it goes this winter.

Maybe I have Trump to thank for keeping my teaching fresh?  Oy.  Good thing my Civil-Military relations course is entirely unaffected by the Trump Era....  Ooops, never mind.

Anyhow, while I whine about grading, I still enjoy teaching.  The research stuff takes more of my time, but the teaching is what got me here in the first place.  Not every class works out as well as I wish, and I keep tinkering.  The flow of new students each year helps to make my job new again and again, and their enthusiasm rubs off on me.  I know I am getting older, but hanging with the young folks is not a bad way to keep seeing the world with fresh eyes. I will forever be grateful to the students for not just laughing at my jokes but for pushing me to think through the stuff I am trying to convey, to making me re-think my assumptions, and for teaching me about stuff that I didn't know via their papers and presentations.  Grading and letters of recommendation don't seen so painful when put into that context.

Oh, and my students even gave me some always appropriate art:

1 comment:

L'il Steve said...

Enjoyed this. I don't remember my first day at all. Also, would not say it is "biased" to believe that Trump is burning down important political institutions. That's just politically informed.