Today I’m looking forward to spring term and, once again, I am putting together my course syllabi. And these activities brought to mind great advice about teaching that I received from my mentors as an undergraduate and graduate student. And it also reminded me of some tips I put down on paper a while ago for a colleague who, as I had already done, was about to discover the ‘joys’ of a 4:4 teaching load. At the time, my own teaching load was high (then 4:4), but now I teach a more 'manageable' 3:3. I thought I'd pass on my lessons learned by fire.
These tips are likely only useful to those of you with heavy teaching loads and the determination to keep active as a researcher. I personally don’t see any tension between the classroom and research. If you are a college lecturer with a heavy load and trying to be an active researcher, reader and writer, then I hope these ‘tips’ will be of benefit to you.
Tip 1. By the end of the term you will be exhausted. So if possible do NOT assign a big paper to be due in all of your classes at the end of term. And make sure that the majority of questions on your Final Exams are short essays.
Tip 2. If possible find and create convergence between the lectures in each of your courses. One lecture’s focus, for example, might become the context and background for another lecture in a different course. Make sure that the readings you assign also complement lecture development for your other courses. Any reading you do for lecture prep should be useful at least twice in this way.
Tip 3. If possible work only four days a week, and try to have either Friday or Monday off. The three days can help you make it through the grueling prep required and keep current on grading.
Tip 4. Design elements of your courses, if possible, to allow student interaction. Group presentations are great for this. If you do this, then be sure to schedule those presentations at different points in time for each course. This will give you much-needed breaks and help you keep up with your prep work for other courses. For grading presentations, use a table with a grading rubric that is easy to understand, and pass this rubric out before hand so that the students understand the expectations. This act will save you from fifty students asking you for detailed explanations of their ‘B’.
Tip 5. If you are teaching subjects you know nothing about, the best sources for broad context are invariably reference works. Good encyclopedias in your university library can save you hours if used effectively and in conjunction with book reviews, which allow you to speak generally to contemporary trends in historiography. Avoid Wikipedia – not because Wikipedia is bad. It isn’t. But many students have become very shrewd at judging the quality of their instruction by searching keywords and phrases in Wikipedia. If they find that you are parroting back to them what they can already find, then they will disrespect you (and they should).
Tip 6. Provided your university will permit it, the first sentence of each of your syllabi should be "I reserve the right to change everything." This is your get out of jail-free card, which will help you re-orient if something has gone seriously wrong in your planning.
Tip 7. Have your office hours at the beginning of the week. You may be too tired by the end of the week to deal with students.
Tip 8. In the first years of teaching new courses, less is more on a syllabus. It takes about five years to get a course where you want it. Be prepared that your courses will not be as you imagine them. That’s usually because you are only discovering the arguments you want to make as you move through the material.
Tip 9. In putting any syllabus together, it is better to think about the arch of your course and then the content. In other words, think about what you want the students to take away from the course. This will simplify the structure of the syllabus, but also provide a more coherent approach for you in your lectures. Do not over-design your course.
Tip 10. Any reading you do for your courses should help your own research in some way. Build both the arch and the content of the courses - no matter what they are - around themes and issues you know you need to explore further in order to improve your scholarship. Think of it like this: any opportunity you have to read should help your scholarship. It may not be obvious, for example, why Islamic Science matters in your course on World History, or why either should matter to your own work on the History of Neurology. Figure it out. Teach it that way.
Tip 11. Students can only pay attention for about 25 minute periods. When you design your syllabus for each class, create two copies. One for them, and one for you. The Master Syllabus should have on it a reminder of the learning activity you want to try - hopefully a full description of it. It is easier to do this when you are designing the syllabus, because later you will be so tired you will forget what you planned. Time spent on this end helps on that end.
Tip 12. On your Master Syllabus describe the media you plan on using. Some students learn better from PowerPoint and others from Chalkboards or OHP. If you plan on varying the media used, explain to yourself what you are thinking in the Master syllabus.
Tip 13. Students love primary sources. You should too. Primary sources will help you when you do not fully understand the content or context of your lecture. Don’t be unwilling to pass primary sources out and ask students what they mean. And if you are teaching courses in the sciences, then try talking about a method for once. Undergraduates aren’t born into this world understanding, for example, how DNA extraction works. Talk them through it a bit, both in terms of theory and practice.
Tip 14. The greatest challenge to your time will come in the form of clarifications, electronic issues, email etc. with students. Use technology where it helps you. Avoid it like the plague when it doesn't. Some universities offer, for example, plagiarism software that checks student papers. If you use it, then you will have to deal with 100 emails about problems related to the software, and you will have to check 200 papers to make sure that the students were honest. You need that time to do other things. Beware that Blackboard and Moodle demand a great deal of time to learn. They are not intuitive. There is no reward in it for you by grasping the intricacies of these programs. And your university may one day decide not to use them any more (I know, this happened to me). All of that time you spent learning those programs is now gone.
Tip 15. Biography is your friend. If you are unable to find demographic or economic data, a well-placed biography can still demonstrate the theme you wish to make clear in your course. And the biographical sources available in the reference sections of libraries are amazing and fascinating.
Tip 16. If you decide to give in-class assessments to make sure that the students are reading, then also grade them in-class. You don't have time for busy work.
Tip 17. A novel is easier for you to read then articles and textbooks are at the end of the term. Assign one in at least one of your classes.
Tip 18. Historians often forget that they have knowledge that students do not possess. If you read a primary source from the 18th C, for example, spend ten minutes showing the students how the OED can be used to better understand what the source says. The students will usually believe that words always mean the same thing. The OED offers them a corrective. Discussing methods of historical work like this can often be as educational as the content of the source or the lecture as a whole.
Tip 19. Figure out if there are any conferences that you should go to. Cancel class on those days now.
Tip. 20. Ask everyone you know for help as often as you need to. I have no doubt that you have done a lot of teaching. But you have also just completed your PhD. That means that you are probably tired and now you are jumping right in into the trenches. That's great, and it is what you want to do. But don't reinvent the wheel. You have your whole career to get these courses and others where you want them. Remember you can give 100% to teaching and it will still demand more.