A Practical Introduction to College Teaching
All sections of this handbook, which has been prepared by Ian Johnston of Malaspina University-College, Nanaimo, BC, Canada, are in the public domain and may be used by anyone, in whole or in part, without permission and without charge, provided the source is acknowledged.
For comments, questions, suggestions for improvements, and so on, please contact Ian Johnston.
[Table of Contents]
Section 1: Some Basic Common-Sense Principles
Teaching as the Totality of Particular Actions
The most important things about effective or ineffective college teaching are the most obvious. From our own experience as students, most of us have a very clear idea of the general qualities a good instructor should display and, conversely, of those characteristics which detract from a particular instructor's work. We all know, for example, that it's useful for instructors to be, say, interesting, energetic, insightful, fair, organized, well-informed, and stimulating and bad for them to be boring, lazy, capricious, confusing, stupid, and unfair. What we perhaps have a good deal less immediate certainty about is how these general qualities (good and bad) arise from the numerous particular actions the instructor chooses to carry out day by day. Still, that is an essential point we need to remember: the general qualities of an instructor's work arise from what she actually does, not from what she hopes or intends to be or believes she is.
So the first important teaching principle to bear in mind is this: any discussion of the quality of one's teaching must begin and end with what one is actually carrying out moment by moment as an instructor. That seems self-evident (and it is), but it's a principle which is often violated, even (or especially) by those who wish to confine discussions of teaching to the realm of noble purposes or arguments about content, timetabling, ideology, classroom furniture, or the importance of research time (important as these things can sometimes be). This principle has two important corollaries: first, if there is something wrong with an instructor's teaching, then it's almost certainly because of something he is or is not doing in his daily interactions with students, and second, if anyone has a desire to improve his teaching, then he'd better start by looking at what he's actually doing in front of and for his students.
The actions mentioned above include everything the instructor carries out as part of the job, from the most obvious, like lecturing, marking papers, or scheduling office hours, to the most apparently mundane, from writing on the blackboard, presenting slides or overheads or computer displays, distributing papers to the class, adopting a certain style of dress and speaking style, arranging furniture, asking questions, and so on. Since the quality of teaching emerges from the totality of these actions, they all contribute in one way or another to the effectiveness of what is going on. It may well be that any one of these matters, taken in isolation, is comparatively trivial, but, as we shall see, a lack of a attention to a number of minor matters may add up to something more serious. This observation is particularly important because many instructors often have a very limited sense of themselves as teachers and can be quite ill-informed about what they need to attend to in order to improve (more about this later), especially if they are nervous and focusing too much on one part of the job, like lecturing, at the expense of something else, like marking.
These comments should also help to point out that excellence in teaching is not something one can strive for directly. Improving the quality of one's instruction involves paying attention to a host of separate things which, taken together, define the experience for the student.
The Issue of Perspective
Perhaps these points will become somewhat clearer if we think for a moment about the matter of perspective. From what angle does one best assess the quality of an instructor's teaching? The obvious answer is, of course, from the viewpoint of the students, who are, after all, the best collective judges of the issue and the only ones who really matter. Yet how many instructors ever seriously reflect on what they are doing from that perspective (other than when they receive reports of their evaluations)? How many take the time to ponder carefully, not how they think they are managing, but how the students might be responding to what they are doing? How many make the effort to see their teaching through the students' eyes and to collect reliable evidence that can inform them more accurately about the issue? And then, on the basis of such reflection, how many are prepared to adjust what they are doing in order to improve the quality of their instruction?
Here's a very mundane but not entirely trivial example to illustrate this issue of perspective. Instructors routinely hand out pieces of paper for the students to keep (course outlines, essay topics, lecture outlines, instructions of various kinds, and so on). How many bother to make sure that such hand-outs have been punched with three holes so that students can easily and immediately file them in the customary binder? In my experience, relatively few bother with that, especially if they have to do their own duplicating, and I have heard more than one instructor state that she did not go to graduate school for all those years in order to be a secretary. Fair enough, I suppose, but what is the effect of that attitude, that refusal? What is the student supposed to do, once she has received a paper which she cannot immediately and conveniently file away? Instructors who say, in effect, well, she should carry her own three-hole punch or go to the library later and deal with the matter there are simply imposing another small frustrating inconvenience on the student which could easily have been taken care of by an instructor who had thought for a moment about this issue from the student's perspective. Such instructors, it strikes me, are simply inviting the confusion which arises when, in some later class, they ask the students to produce the papers handed out a few days ago and many students cannot find them. An instructor who thinks his only tasks are to prepare the handout and distribute it is overlooking an important further consideration he need to take into account: What are the students supposed to do with it?
I cite this example not as a particularly serious issue in itself, but simply as an example to underscore what I mean by perspective. Those who refuse to consider how the students are likely to respond to little things may well retain that same point of view in more important matters, judging the quality of what they do by their own needs and their own response to the ongoing business of the classroom, rather than by some sense of how those who have to listen and look on may be reacting. We need to remember that our perception of what we do is not the crucial issue (especially since such perceptions are often extremely inaccurate): what truly matters is how the students respond to what we do. In other words, for us the key question is not "How am I doing?" but "How are they doing?" If the students are doing well, then the instructor is obviously working effectively, no matter how she feels about her teaching. And if there are problems with a particular class, then, before assigning blame to the students, we should first ask ourselves this question: What am I doing (or not doing) that may be contributing to this problem?
The single most important purpose of this handbook is to encourage instructors to think about what they do from the perspective of the student, taking into account the students' priorities (which may not match those of the instructor) and their responses to everything that confronts them in a particular course. The second important purpose here is to encourage instructors to explore this perspective in everything they do, or, more pertinently, in everything they expect the students to experience, without ever dismissing something because it is apparently too trivial or professionally demeaning.
One might observe here that what I am urging in this text is somewhat undercut by the traditional terms we use to designate our job: professor, instructor, teacher, lecturer. These terms have the potentially unfortunate effect of suggesting that what matters most is what we do at the front of the class (we profess, instruct, teach, lecture), and so if we feel the process we initiate is going well for us from our point of view, then all is well. It might be useful to remember that our job is not really to profess, instruct, teach, or lecture (in the sense that our major task is to do something directly to the students and, if we carry that out to our own satisfaction, we've done all that is required of us). Our task, by contrast, is to provide opportunities for students to learn. The most significant active part of the process comes from them, and the instructor is there to make that process work better, not to impose his own actions in a way that may erect unnecessary hurdles, frustrate it, or simply waste the students' time. In fact, there are occasions when students learn best if the instructor will stop seeing himself as the driving force of the activity, stand aside, and let the students discuss something among themselves or carry out some activity on their own (e.g., in seminars or some laboratory situations or assignments). Of course, a phrase like "provider of learning opportunities" is far too cumbersome, so I'll stick with the conventional labels. But my emphasis will, I hope, be evident throughout.
A Place to Start: A Experiment with Memory
This handbook will often offer suggestions about ways to examine one's job from a student's perspective, and it will encourage instructors repeatedly to try to see themselves in this way, because, while it's easy enough to make the recommendation about changing one's perspective, it is sometimes difficult to make the switch. Hence, certain practice exercises may be useful.
A good place to start this process—and one I would especially recommend to all new instructors—is a trip down memory lane, a prolonged reflection on one's own experience as a student at all levels of the system. Almost all of us remember particular teachers quite well (often long after we have forgotten many of the things they taught us). Some we recall with special affection and thanks, and others stay with us as examples we might well have done without (and would prefer not to emulate). If we're prepared to do some hard thinking and jot down a few notes, these figures from our past have a lot to offer us in our own careers.
To begin with, it's almost certainly the case that this list of past teachers provides a variety of teaching styles, ranging from one end of the spectrum (strict, controlling, formal, distant, and even authoritarian) to the other end (informal, casual, friendly, flexible) and that one remembers good and bad teachers from both ends and points in between. If you have some experience of this variety, then you should grasp the following point easily enough: there is no single instructional style which you have to adopt, no archetypal pattern which the fledgling instructor must imitate as the single correct style. Whatever effective or ineffective teaching is all about, it comes in a wide variety of different forms, from (to cite the old adage) a sage on the stage to a guide on the side. So in thinking about the particular style you wish to adopt, it's probably a good idea to select the one with which you are most comfortable (for example, when you think of how you might dress or stand or sit or address the students). Students themselves are familiar enough from their own experience with a considerable variety, so they will not be imposing a demand for a particular one (although, as we shall see, certain classroom situations, like a very large class, may well rule out some possibilities). Different students have different preferences, of course, but they are all familiar enough with the variety I mention. So there is no need for you to worry about having to satisfy a particular style which goes against your natural inclinations as a performing artist (and instruction is in many situations, at least in part, a performing art, no matter how much that sly old actor Socrates and his descendants might fulminate against the sophists). Being natural, as Oscar Wilde pointed out, is only a pose.
A second important way in which this review of one's own instructors can assist our own work is that it can provide some useful practical advice. For example, if we remember an instructor as particularly ineffective, there is great value in considering the following questions: What did that instructor actually do to make his teaching so bad? What, in particular, made students react that way to his teaching? To answer these questions in a useful manner, one should not simply provide a general label (like boring, unfair, lazy, and so on) but get right down to specific actions. What did he do or not do to create a sense that he was unfair, boring, lazy, stupid, or whatever? What, in particular, made you sense that he could have been doing his job more effectively? If you had to give him specific practical advice on how to change one aspect of his behaviour for the better, what would it be? In other words, "unpack" the general qualities you remember, so that their origin in particular actions becomes clear (from the way he moved and spoke, to the way he addressed students, asked and responded to questions, marked papers, organized the material, moved around, wrote on the blackboard, and so on). If possible, let your imagination re-create a classroom session with this instructor, and make notes of everything which irritated or frustrated you. Then, repeat the exercise, but this time focus on an instructor whose contributions you admire. The more particular the points you can jot down, the more useful this exercise will be.
The value of this exercise is twofold: first, it should remind you clearly of the point made at the start of this section, that the quality of instruction arises from all sorts of particular activities, many of which may seem relatively unimportant taken in isolation, and, second, any notes you make may provide some useful advice about how you might organize the way you act in the classroom, everything from how you dress, to how you ask questions, deal with your lecture notes, present the visual material, deal with interruptions, hand back assignments, and so on. Our own experience as students can, in this way, become a very valuable resource, encouraging us to recognize things we should avoid and things we should strive for. In fact, if you are nervous about launching your teaching career, you could do a lot worse than model your initial style closely on some instructor you admire (you will probably do that unconsciously to some extent anyway, but prolonged conscious reflection on these matters can be an enormous help).
If one's memory is not a sufficient repository of useful examples, then, once classes begin, one can also perform this exercise by visiting one's own colleagues and observing them in action, a practice which, in my experience, is (alas) very rarely encouraged, even among instructors who are seeking immediate assistance.
What Students Expect
As mentioned above, a class of students will be prepared to accept a wide variety of styles among different instructors, and there is no single style that an instructor has to emulate. However, students will quickly become frustrated by and may exploit any uncertainties in the teaching style a particular instructor uses and they will almost certainly get confused by an instructor who is extremely inconsistent (sometime very casual, sometimes very formal). Hence, however you choose to present yourself, it is important to reflect on how you wish the students to perceive you and how you can foster that perception or undercut it and thus make your teaching and their learning more or less effective.
It's important to insist here that it's often a bad idea for an instructor to set up as a major priority the fact that the students like her. Of course, we would prefer the students to think of us in a friendly way, but the far more important priority is that they respect us, attend to the business at hand under our direction, and learn effectively. One of the most common mistakes of new instructors is that they forget this obvious principle and go out of their way to be friendly and agreeable, often at the cost of some important classroom concerns. Making friends or agreeable acquaintances of students, a major benefit of college teaching, is something that should emerge at its own pace, not something a new instructor should ever try to force or even encourage, especially at the beginning of a new semester.
[Parenthetically, the above point is an important reason why new teachers are often well advised to start out a semester with a new class more formally than they otherwise might, making sure they begin by establishing some distance between themselves and the students, rather than trying to be too friendly and informal right from the first day. It's easy enough to relax one's formality as one grows more familiar with the class, without any deleterious consequences. But the reverse process is almost always impossible. If you begin with a style that is decidedly informal and easy-going and discover that that is creating some important difficulties, then you're stuck. Trying to impose formal and firm rules in mid-semester after you have earlier decided not to insist upon them is a recipe for trouble. Hence, the saying an experienced instructor handed down to me in my first year, "Don't let them see you smile 'til Christmas!"]
Some Key Principles
The most important ways one earns the students' respect are obvious enough if we think for a moment about what students expect from an instructor. An instructor needs consistently to display four cardinal virtues: clarity, fairness, efficiency, and courtesy (I'm deliberately leaving out expertise in the subject area, an essential quality, because I am assuming that has been taken care of by the hiring process: obviously if there are problems with the instructor's own grasp of the subject material, he should go back to school or get another job). We will be exploring these characteristics in greater detail at different times in the following sections, but for the moment it's worth lingering on them briefly.
Clarity refers to the fact that, right from the very first day, the students must all have a very firm sense of what the course demands of them, everything from textbooks, assignments, marking schemes, and so on, to classroom behaviour, out-of-class contact with the instructor, attendance, any provision for special cases, and so on. These, if you like, are the rules for this particular course, and they need to be set early (usually in the Course Outline) and adhered to strictly. There is room for different sets of rules from one instructor to the next (students are used to that), but for any particular class such a set must be clearly in place from the very first day. One of the most important sources of frustration and anger among students is uncertainty about what they should be doing, where they are in the course, where they go next, what exactly the instructor expects them to know, and so on. And attempts to establish rules by reaching a consensus through class discussions will almost certainly frustrate some students (since securing agreement among all members of the class will usually be difficult and most students expect the instructor to establish such procedures).
In this connection, an instructor would do well to remember that providing oral instructions or requirements is generally not a good idea (especially about anything important, like deadlines, curriculum changes, marking). That's a way of creating instant confusion among students, who will argue about exactly what was said. Put all the more important things in writing. A written record, as well as informing students unambiguously, also gives you something to appeal to, should a student raise questions about a particular rule further along in the semester. More about this later.
Fairness refers, above all, to the fact that the instructor needs to abide by his own rules and the rules of the department or institution and to apply them appropriately to all students. Any rule, no matter how firmly set, ceases to matter once it has been abandoned in a particular case (e.g., permitting a student to forget a firm deadline without an adequate reason, requiring attendance but failing to keep track, and so on). As we shall see, there are times when an instructor may well wish to change a particular requirement, and that can work out all right, provided that the change affects everyone equally (and not for the worse) and is not likely to prompt a complaint and that the instructor discusses the change with the class. Any breach of departmental or institutional rules (for example, by scheduling an activity, like an exam, during days set aside for a study break, or overloading the value of an examination when the college has a policy of continuous evaluation, and so on) will breed manifest discontent (among your colleagues as well as your students).
Fairness also includes a number of other matters, like structuring assignments to reflect the priorities of the course and the allocation of class time to the material (i.e., no "trick" assignments or questions), marking assignments in a useful and fair manner, scheduling appropriate tests, spending additional time with students, and so on. Most importantly, the instructor must be able to indicate (by producing some written record) to any student arguing about a mark or a final grade that he has been treated fairly (an important point when the marking scheme includes something ambiguous, like "Participation").
One important element in fairness in some cases is taking care you don't persuade the students that you are trying to sell them a narrow ideology in your approach to the material. This does not mean that an instructor has to be blandly non-committal when the situation calls for some incisive analysis from an ideological perspective. But unless the curriculum requires you to do so, you should be careful not to approach all material from the same unremitting perspective without giving other points of view a fair hearing or at least allowing students to challenge that perspective (in their comments and their assignments). While students do like to hear their instructor's viewpoint and need examples of intelligent analysis in action (one of the most important purposes of certain lectures), they really resent the unnecessary and continuous imposition of a particular ideology in courses where that is not clearly spelled out in the course description or constantly being metaphorically slapped down when they challenge the instructor's point of view (e.g., a doggedly Marxist or radical feminist interpretation of all the works of fiction in a first-year English course, a permanent right-wing bias in political science, a traditional approach to Shakespeare which allows no room for feminist or colonialist interpretative suggestions, and so on).
Efficiency refers to the fact that the instructor needs to work hard to make what goes on in the course a valuable learning experience for students, class by class, assignment by assignment. That means being well prepared, rehearsing if necessary (for example, with new audio-visual equipment or experimental apparatus), checking the classroom in advance, and creating a sense of purposeful activity. An instructor should never waste students' time on meaningless assignments, irrelevant personal digressions, unnecessary tinkering with equipment during class time, or activities which merely repeat what they have already done (for example, by spending the time just rehashing material which he assigned the students to read the night before). Efficiency also means carrying out your part of the job as expeditiously and thoroughly as possible (for example, getting marked assignments back to students quickly, keeping promises to students, observing office hours scrupulously, and so on).
Courtesy refers to the style of the instructor's interaction with the students, which, no matter how stern, strict, informal, or friendly, should always be polite, even at times when the instructor has reason to be extremely irritated. One needs to be careful about telling certain kinds of jokes, especially in the first couple of weeks of class (unless you are very sure of your audience), being sarcastic, swearing, engaging in colloquial banter with students (particularly about their appearance), using certain words to criticize a student's comments in class or in an essay, and so on. Don't make any easy assumptions about the students' sophistication (which may appear very polished), their ability to understand ironic comments, their political sympathies or religious views, and so on. Of course, it's an essential part of the instructor's job to be critical (often very firmly so), but one needs to adopt an appropriate vocabulary to do that properly. We no longer think of ourselves in loco parentis, but for all that, it's worth remembering that many students are still living at home and have yet to venture on their own into the big, naughty world. Many older students can be very nervous about what's going on in the classroom. In almost every class there will be students very sensitive to issues of gender and race and religion. And many will not share your sense of humour.
The key elements in courtesy are listening carefully and responding politely, even when you have to discipline a student (there's a significant difference, for example, between "Get out of the room now, you idiot!" and "Would you please leave the classroom and see me later"). Take particular care to attend carefully to a student's objection to something, whether it's the choice of a particular story in an English class, an assignment, some aspect of your own conduct, the marking of an essay, a complaint about a deadline, or something else. She has the right to a hearing and a response (the instructor can, of course, defer that response or ask the student to see him in private, if he does not wish to consider the question immediately). Casually dismissing what looks like a trivial complaint is usually the first step in creating a much bigger and more difficult problem (this point cannot be stressed enough--in many colleges several major, very time-consuming human rights or harassment cases could have been resolved easily right at the start if the instructor had taken the time to listen carefully to and deal intelligently with the initial complaint).
One should be careful, too, in one's attitude to the material one is teaching, to other courses, and to the institution (I'm not sure if this is a matter of courtesy exactly, but this section is an appropriate place to mention it). To speak disrespectfully of some part of the curriculum (e.g., "I know this is rubbish, but we have to deal with it") simply confuses students about why the material is in the course in the first place, and to talk that way about other courses (e.g., "I don't know why anyone in their right mind would take Liberal Studies"), apart from confusing students in your class who are enrolled in Liberal Studies, is extremely discourteous to your colleagues. In the same way, be careful about maligning the institution or a part of it (especially a particular person in it) with inappropriate comments (which is not to say, of course, you cannot offer critical insights into some aspect of what is going on, especially in response to students' questions).
These qualities, as we shall see, are not always easy to strive for directly. They emerge from everything an instructor does, all the different actions which define, in large part, the student's perception of what is going on in the course. Later sections of this handbook will be frequently referring to these priorities in connection with some of these specific activities.
What to Expect from Your Students
An early challenge to any instructor new to the college classroom will be to adjust her expectations of students, so that she has a more accurate sense of who they are, what kind of lives they lead, and how well they are prepared to cope with college life in general and her course in particular. Such an adjustment is all the more important, of course, if the instructor has a tendency to view college life primarily through her own memories of how she felt and fared as a student or to assume that all her students are going to fall into the same general rubric (e.g., all full time, all young, all recent graduates of high school, all middle class, all potential majors students, and so on).
Most instructors, one can safely assume, were very successful in college. They obviously found something there which excited and stimulated them, and they enjoyed significant success. In addition, they have a particular interest in the subjects they teach and a recognized expertise, as well as a thorough familiarity with the bureaucratic details of campus life. Most instructors probably enjoyed the luxury of attending college full time, at least for a part of their education. And one can assume that many years have passed since the instructor first entered post-secondary education as a callow first-year student, so the memories of those early years may have faded considerably and have since been replaced by more recent experiences from senior undergraduate years and from post-graduate school. Hence, the new instructor will almost certainly be out of touch with what his students are going through, and that's especially true if he is now teaching in an institution very different from the one where he went to school.
Given the above, we should not base our initial expectations of students on our own recent post-graduate experiences or bring to the class a false sense of how familiar, interesting, or important our particular subject area is to them. It may not be our job to sell them directly on the subject (although obviously we hope they find the material interesting), but at the same time we need to appreciate how students can be genuinely puzzled or frustrated or confused by a certain form of academic enquiry (this point is especially the case in the first years of the undergraduate program). Many students may well have difficulty in understanding the point of a particular discipline. And many college students, particularly in the first two years, will find certain aspects of college life very confusing.
The best way to get a sense of what to expect from the students in your classes is to talk at length with some instructors who have taught the courses before. They should be able to give precise and useful information about the students' academic, cultural, and personal backgrounds and, most important, about the variety you can expect to find among them. This variety will, of course, depend a great deal on the nature of the college itself. The students in an expensive private residential college will obviously be different from those in a public college which draws its students from a very heterogeneous, multi-ethnic, and largely urban population.
Some Common Characteristics of College Students
In general, one can probably expect to find most or all of the following characteristics in each of the classes you teach:
In many cases (especially in arts and social science courses) you can expect a considerable variety in the background: mature students, recent high-school graduates, native students, single parents, grandparents, students with a wide range of ethnic and cultural backgrounds, some with a strong religious faith (and entirely dismissive of evolution), others contemptuous of religion, students who are living away from home for the first time (or perhaps still at home) and those who have plenty of experience (not always very pleasant experience) of life on their own. Some will be be highly motivated to learn, others will be uncertain of why they are in college at all or will have chosen your course only because it suits their timetable, and still others are there primarily to collect the student loan or to keep their parents quiet. Unless the course is one which attracts only a particular kind of student, it will be difficult to make any easy assumptions about what your students have in common. In many cases, this variety will be an important benefit to the students' education and a source of continuing interest to the instructor who takes the trouble to let such differences emerge in the class discussions.
This variety in background will in the first two years probably be matched by a variety in career plans. Many students will have no clear sense of what career they wish to pursue; others will have firm and clear ambitions (in many cases these may be quite unrealistic). Many may have little-to-no idea what's involved in the course they have selected (especially in first-year classes). Several will be exploring their options or refusing to commit themselves. An important part of an instructor's responsibilities is helping the students assess more realistically where their talents lie.
Students new to the college will have a varying range of abilities, but one important deficiency most of them will suffer from is an inability to understand the nature of rational arguments, either those they have to read or those they have to construct (many first-year students will undoubtedly believe that expressing a sincere opinion and a creating a persuasive argument are one and the same thing). In fact, the single most important task college instructors in almost all disciplines share throughout the entire undergraduate program is to encourage the students to learn more about responding appropriately to and creating effective arguments. Hence, it is unwise to assume too quickly that students in the first years bring to your classes and assignments any particular experience in this area, or that more senior students have all the skills here they need.
Most inexperienced students, no matter what their background, have great difficulty understanding and following clear instructions. One reason for this is that they often come from backgrounds where such instructions have been treated as loose guidelines or simply waived in the interests of treating the student with leniency and understanding (or they may have developed a long habit of evading instructions in various ways). No instructor should ever assume that verbal instructions, no matter how frequently repeated, will be clear to everyone. Hence, all important matters, especially those related to marks, deadlines, and assignments, should always be written out and, if possible, posted somewhere (in a Course Outline or on a web page) where the student has ready access to them. Even so, you can expect to experience a certain frustration with students who continue to get confused or careless about certain things (e.g., deadlines, formats for assignments, procedures for handing papers in, and so on). One of your important duties as an instructor is to teach students early and repeatedly that instructions matter.
A college, even a small one, can be quite bewildering at all levels of the curriculum. Instructors are thoroughly familiar with the frequently Byzantine world of credits, courses, pre-requisites, majors and minors programs, joint honour degrees, elective credits, and so on (although instructors can, of course, be seriously misinformed about many details). Many students are not quite so comfortable with these arrangements and often require a long time to get used to them. So you need to be careful about assuming they understand exactly what you're talking about when you lay out the complexities of options before them (if that's something you're inclined to do). Given, too, that instructors frequently get the details wrong, it's probably a good idea to avoid talking about these matters with the students (except where your own particular courses are concerned) and refer the students routinely to an academic counsellor or advisor.
Classes in which all or most of the students share a common curriculum (e.g., in nursing or forestry or physical education, and so on) and who take all their classes together will be very different from classes in which the students are all more or less strangers to each other (e.g., many lower-division elective courses and first-year introductory courses). The first type of class quickly develops its own collective identity (or has one already), its own leaders, and its own demands (which the instructor will have to respond to and perhaps even incorporate into the course). Such classes will not give an inexperienced instructor much time to adjust; hence, it's wise to be especially well prepared for them, pay particular attention to any group requests, and be very firm in sticking to the rules you have established. If you are teaching in the second year of a program like this, where the students already know each other very well, this advice is even more important. The second type of class will probably never develop a sense of collective identity (not, at least, in a single semester) and will probably be much easier in some respects for the instructor to deal with (although, in my experience, he will generally not enjoy them as much, since groups with a strong sense of identity tend to have a higher morale, a more interesting energy, and little reluctance in speaking their minds).
A great many students in college nowadays lead hectic and very full lives (with jobs, family responsibilities, medical conditions, and so on), so that they do not have the luxury of attending college full time or of "hanging around" the college after class to benefit from the cultural richness of extra-curricular activities. In many cases, the only time they spend at college will be when they are in class. Hence, it can be a real imposition to expect them to make unscheduled visits to campus (e.g., required visits to out-of-class events, office hours at difficult times, and so on). You can expect to encounter some resistance if you make such a demand, unless it's clearly set out from the start. This point about students' lives also means it's important for many of them to have ready access to an instructor by phone or e-mail.
In response to some of the problems listed above (and others) students routinely confer with instructors they find sympathetic in order to discuss matters not strictly related to the work of the course. You can expect sometimes to feel rather like a therapist or counselor (make sure you always have a box of tissues in your office). This is (for some instructors) a flattering position to be in: a student has chosen you out and is confiding in you. However, for reasons we will discuss elsewhere, while it's important to be sympathetic and supportive in most cases, it is generally an extremely bad idea to deliver advice or opinions about matters not immediately relevant to your course, other than to recommend that the student see the person responsible for this particular matter (e.g., financial aid officer, counselor, academic advisor, human rights officer, doctor, ombudsman, and so on).
A recurring problem you will have to deal with, one more immediately relevant to your own courses, is constant pressure from students about grades. In most cases this pressure stems from a genuine worry about future prospects (e.g., entry into the teacher training program or graduate school, maintaining a certain GPA for bursary money, and so on) in an intensely competitive climate. You will need to be prepared to listen carefully to such comments and have procedures in place for dealing with them (more about this later).
The Social Factor
One of the essential ingredients in the most effective learning environments is a rich social experience in which students have the opportunity or are required to interact with each other in pursuit of a common curriculum. Students learn more effectively from each other than they do in isolation or from interactions with the instructor, and they enjoy their classes a great deal more when they sense they have some friends or acquaintances in the class room. Access to other students is among the most important reasons why they are paying fees to attend college in person rather than seeking out cheaper and more convenient distance-learning options. So an instructor needs to think about the extent to which the methods and material in a particular course can promote or inhibit such interaction (maximizing access to fellow students is the "secret" component in private, elite education, its most significant advantage over public systems).
There was a time, of course, when instructors did not have to worry about the social environment simply because all students tended to be young, full time, and actively engaged in things like fraternities, debating clubs, sports teams, drama groups, philosophy clubs, and so on. Nowadays, for reasons mentioned above, that is frequently not the case (the surrounding campus culture has withered considerably), so that in many cases the student's social experience is going to be defined in very large part by what goes on in his classes.
In some courses, attending to the social environment is not a problem, because the students in the class all know each other well, are part of the same coordinated program, and routinely carry out projects together (e.g., theatre or nursing courses, classes in a technical or physical education program, and so on). Here the instructor can safely assume that the students will be enjoying the significant benefits of routine social interaction with each other. In fact, it will be very difficult to be part of such a well-integrated program without participating to some extent in the social activities generated by the group (the games, theatre performances, parties, field trips, and so on).
Many science course have a built-in social element in the labs, where students have to work together in more informal surroundings. In many arts and social science classes, however, particularly in the first two years, the students come together as strangers, work in isolation from and competition with each other, and can all too easily go through an entire semester without developing a significant friendship or engaging in helpful conversations. A student's social interaction may well be confined to occasional consultations with the instructor. Ironically, the courses most closely associated with issues of human relationships are themselves often socially very arid.
There are some ways an instructor can mitigate this situation (if not resolve it), should she so choose, by structuring certain elements in the curriculum in order to encourage or require students to interact in useful ways. We will be reviewing these later in more detail, but here are some suggestions:
--developing assignments in which two or three students have to carry out a project together;
--setting up a newsgroup, getting the students to introduce themselves, and making a continuing e-conversation an integral part of the course;
--routinely getting the class to divide up into smaller discussion groups;
--having one or two generous breaks in a long (three-hour) class, giving the students time to chat;
--re-organizing the usual format of the course in order to offer regular seminar-style learning.
--using the class time for an informal field trip (e.g., to the library, the art gallery, the college theatre), which may involve the students moving around in small independent groups rather than in one large mass.
The more a student feels "at home" or among friends in a class, the more effectively and enjoyably she will learn the material and the more closely the instructor will remain in touch with what is going on. But in some cases, such socialization will not occur unless the instructor encourages the process.
Defining How You Work
Finally (in this section) a word about your own commitment to the job. While college teaching is an enormously enjoyable and fulfilling profession, it can also be an extremely tiring activity, especially in those institutions where instructors are also expected to spend a significant amount of time on other things (e.g., faculty committees, community work, and research activities). A new instructor, with little-to-no teaching experience, will probably find the demands of teaching almost overwhelming in her first year, particularly if she has been assigned a full complement of those lower-division courses which the senior instructors traditionally leave for newcomers. It is thus probably a good idea to keep one's committee work and research activities to a minimum during this period, rather than loading oneself with work over and above the instructional responsibilities (e.g., completing a thesis, preparing conference papers, sitting on time-consuming committees, and so on). There will be plenty of time for such extra-curricular activities in future years.
Of course, if you are on a temporary contract and seeking tenure at some later date, you need to balance this advice against the obvious point that your success in obtaining a permanent position will be decisively affected by the number of people you know in the department and often by your research output and committee work—in fact, so far as gaining full-time employment is concerned, these factors in many (perhaps most) institutions are far more important than the quality of your teaching (if this handbook were dealing mainly with professional survival in an academic faculty culture, these points would be emphasized in much more detail).
What makes college instruction rather different from other professions is that the instructor has a great deal of freedom to determine for herself the extent of her commitment to the classroom, for there is little direct official supervision of what one does there, and one's salary generally remains unaffected by the quality or extent of one's work with the students, unless the problems get so serious that the students start launching official group complaints (an extremely rare occurrence). However, it's important to think about the nature of one's commitment, to make a decision, and to organize one's courses with that in mind. For, at one extreme, with a regular workload there is never enough time to do all the things one might like to do to assist all the students in their learning, and an instructor who sets herself that goal will quickly be a candidate for burn out. At the other extreme, it is possible to cut all sorts of corners and to minimize the demands of teaching (especially when one has sufficient experience to avoid antagonizing the students or letting them see precisely what you are or are not doing), so that one is free to do other things.
For example, an instructor exerts a decisive power over the most-time consuming element in the job—supervising and marking assignments (both through the number and nature of the assignments, the quality of the marking, and the follow-up to them). Assigning one less essay and refusing to let the students submit revised versions of their work may well mean two additional weekends free of instructional duties. A multiple-choice test will require far less time to mark than one requiring responses written in paragraphs. And so on. Making decisions about such things requires a balance between what the instructor thinks will best foster student learning and what she needs to do to avoid the immediate consequences of sustained overwork: exhaustion, poor preparation, careless marking, caffeine addiction, and so on.
There is no magic formula here. Sometimes departments will provide useful guidelines for the number and type of assignments, tests, exams, and so forth, and there may be policies about rewritten work. Even with these in place, however, an instructor can be a thorough, slow marker who provides plenty of useful comments and hours of follow-up time, or a quick, casual marker who provides little more than a letter grade at the end of the last page, or something in between. Hence, you must determine for yourself the amount of time you have available for many of the most important elements of the job—and that decision needs to be made in advance, since many of the most important rules you put into place will arise from that decision (the number and length of assignments, style of testing, marking detail, options for rewriting, and so on).
Here, the only advice I can offer is that, as a professional, you have two responsibilities: to do the best job you can (setting your own standards) and to make sure you do not entirely sap your creative energies in the process. You need to maintain a balance between these two demands. For one of your most important duties to your students is to ensure that you remain energetic, committed, healthy, and imaginatively alive, and do not let the job, particularly the more onerous parts, overwhelm you. Different people maintain their creative juices in different ways, so I have nothing particular here to recommend, except that it's no doubt much better if these methods are legal, don't involve activities with students which might quickly lead to problems, and can at times provide useful material for your own classes. I have always found regular physical exercise in the college gym a quick, legal, and useful way to keep up my energy and to learn interesting and often surprising things about and from my students. My colleagues have developed a variety of other options (traveling, organizing a film series or poetry readings, jogging, acting, painting, creative writing, research, and so on).
One final comment. It's perfectly natural for instructors in the first or tenth or twentieth year of teaching routinely to feel nervous about lecturing, frustrated with marking, or extremely tired (especially during February and early March). Those responses come with the job and are by no means indications that your teaching is not going as it should. Given that instructors are often very poor judges of the quality of their own instruction (an important point always to bear in mind), you should not jump to the conclusion, on the basis of your own temporary negative feelings, that students are not learning anything. The best way to deal with such feelings is to talk to your colleagues. They will probably indicate they often experience just what you are going through.
However, it also occasionally happens that an instructor suddenly feels simply overwhelmed and unable to continue properly. If you ever reach that state, you must get advice immediately. Do not simply soldier on and pretend nothing serious is going on or think that, if you skip a couple of days, the problem will go away. There is plenty of help available (first and foremost, from your colleagues), and there is no shame attached to needing some time off to recover (I have never known a case of this where the department has not rallied around a colleague). The profession can be very demanding, and you are not doing yourself or your students any good if you simply refuse to recognize that, for everyone's sake, you have to get some temporary relief. I myself have experienced serious "burn out" at least twice in my career, and my delay in getting help simply made matters considerably worse for myself and my classes.
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