Saturday, November 25, 2006

Mission accomplished

When I started my career as an university professor this summer I had very limited teaching experience. I always knew I liked teaching and thought I had a talent for it. I worked for one year as an elementary school teacher after finishing my Master's, I have given lots of public talks, worked as a guide and volunteered in outreach programmes. During my PhD I worked as a TA and had some responsibility for labs and field courses but was never given the chance to develop anything more independently. I had mentioned to several people that I was interested in teaching opportunities, but I am in a field where the typical freshman cohort consist of between ten and twenty students, a number approximately equalling the number of professors in an average department. In other words there is no need for people in my field. Particularly not for teaching staff. So I was thrilled in an open-the-champagne-and-go-crazy kind of way, when I was asked if I was interested in this position.

What I did not realize until I was in the middle of it, was how many new and frightening tasks this job required. Or how frightening many of the tasks seemed the the untrained eye. I was supposed to develop a brand new course from a one paragraph outline. I had to write a syllabus, invite some hotshots in the field as guest lecturers, put together a field excursion, plan lectures and exercises and initiate and supervise 14 individual research projects. The course is in my "secondary" subfield. I only read literature from the secondary subfield when it is relevant for my primary subfield, and I am by know means an expert in an general-overview way in this field. I felt like an idiot. I didn't know any hotshots and I was afraid of contacting the hotshots I thought would be most relevant, because I thought they would laugh at me and think my course was ridiculous. At the first lectures I was so worried that I literally felt sick because I felt like I knew nothing. When I held the first office hours and was meeting with students about their research projects my biggest worry was that they would find out that I didn't know much more than them. It felt like everything happened randomly at best and every week there was something new to fret about.

But every week I also learned something new. Every week the challenge from last week transformed itself to something I already knew how to do well and had succeded in, while my focus turned to the challenges ahead. When I had gotten everyone back from the first long field expedition - safe and alive and somewhat enlightened, it was time to deal with lectures. When I had read two undergraduate textbooks, the abstracts of a load of articles and compiled a decent set of lectures, it was time to deal with research projects. By the time I had miraculously invented fourteen different projects, which were neither too crazy nor too boring and on topics for which I could actually be of any help, the guest lecturers were beginning to arrive. Some of them were snotty and behaved in a way that made me feel like an idiot, but I didn't die, and most were genuinely nice and enthusistic people who thought it was interesting to meet me (huh, ME?). Noone seemed to think the syllabus was ridiculous, many told me the lectures were great, the students were eager to learn and seemed to be happy and satisfied with my way of dealing with them. When they handed in their research projects last week I was so impressed with what they are capable of now. Most of them had never or very rarely read a scientific article before, most had never done independent field work and most were not used to give talks. Yet, almost everybody planned and carried out excellent and interesting projects, read the literature, cited the articles more or less correctly and gave 15 minutes oral presentations in front of an audience and answered questions in a convincing and serious way.

The only thing left to do now is to write and grade the exam, and I do not worry about this. I am confident that I can write a reasonable exam covering the topics they should be familiar with and evaluate it fairly. I would have worried about this six months ago, when I worried about everything from how to write a good lecture to how to find an external examinor. Now it all seems so easy. I hope it is like riding a bicycle - if you can do it once you can always do it again. I might not get a chance to develop my own course again anytime soon, but when I do, I know what I am doing and why I am doing it. I even think I have a teaching philosophy now.

.....and I have gotten a card from the students saying I was their best teacher ever. (that one is going in the records, for sure).



At 8:08 AM, Blogger Breena Ronan said...

Wow! Good job! It's always the teachers who worry about their teaching abilities that do the best job.

At 10:54 PM, Blogger saxifraga said...

Thanks :-) I hope you're right.


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