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Teaching in Graduate School

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By James Stacey Taylor


At some point during your graduate career—if not during all of it—you are likely to teach undergraduates. Initially, you will probably be a teaching assistant (TA) for a professor. Later, you may be expected to teach your own classes, and teach as an adjunct instructor either at your own institution or at another. For reasons that I will outline below, this is all good news.


Yet, sometimes people talk as though teaching while a graduate student is to be avoided if at all possible, especially if such teaching requires you to design and develop your own classes. In part, this view of teaching might be motivated by a dislike of undergraduate teaching. If so, then I suspect the people who hold it for this reason can’t be very happy if they are themselves academic. For, even at major research institutions, the teaching of undergraduates takes up a lot of professors’ time—and so if you don’t like teaching you probably shouldn’t be going into academia to begin with!


In part, however, the view that you should avoid teaching in graduate school is likely to stem from the concern that the more time you spend teaching while you’re in graduate school the less time that you’ll spend writing your dissertation and turning it into publishable articles—and it is completing the dissertation and publishing from it that is going to help you secure a job once you finish. This concern is a perfectly sensible one, for your main focus in graduate school should be on writing your dissertation and publishing articles.


However, the reality of the job market in many of the humanities is such that someone who never teaches his or her own class in graduate school is likely to be at a disadvantage when he or she looks for a job. (I should mention that I’m most familiar with the philosophy job market, and so my remarks here apply mainly to it; although from speaking with many colleagues in other humanities disciplines I think that they apply generally, as well.) This is because, quite simply, all entry-level academic jobs are going to require a considerable amount of teaching. This point is underscored by the fact that around 90% of academics work at teaching-oriented (rather than research-oriented) institutions. There are very few 2/2 teaching loads at research universities available, and even they usually require that those fortunate few who have them teach for 50% of their time. More typical is the 3/3 teaching load, and even the 4/4 teaching load—sometimes even higher. (Perhaps a brief explanation of these teaching loads might be useful to you. A 2/2 load means that one teaches two courses in the first semester, and two in the second; a 3/3 means that one teaches three courses in the first semester, and three in the second, and so on.)


Given this, it is not surprising that search committees look in the application dossiers of job candidates for some evidence of teaching ability. After all, since teaching undergraduates is likely to be a big part of the job of the person they hire it’s not surprising that they look for evidence from candidates that they will be good at it!


So, what should you do about teaching in graduate school? First, try to teach your own classes—or, better yet, a range of classes. Many of the jobs that you will eventually apply to will be at institutions with small departments that emphasize teaching—and this is true even if you’re shooting for a research orientated position. As such, it is very useful to be able to show not only that you have experience in teaching, but that you can teach in areas that are outside your research focus. For example, if your research focuses on Theoretical Ethics, it would be very useful for you to be able to teach in, say, Modern Philosophy and Philosophy of Law. Try also to teach classes that will be in demand from students no matter where you teach. If you are a philosopher, for example, try to teach Introduction to Philosophy, Ethics, Modern Philosophy, or a class in some area of applied ethics no matter what your area of specialization. These courses will be required by almost all institutions as either the “core” courses for their majors or minors, or as standard general education courses students will be required to take, irrespective of major. You need not worry that a school will look on this as dilettantism. Instead, they are likely to look on someone who has taught such courses very positively, since your being able to teach such courses will give them a greater degree of flexibility when making their teaching assignments. Of course, for some people, teaching their own class in graduate school won’t be an option. If this is your position, make sure that you TA for as many different courses as possible. Also, make sure that you become as involved as possible in these classes. For example, ask your professor if you could teach a class while he or she observes you, and writes up a report on your teaching, offer to write up some essay questions for the professor’s approval, and offer to help construct examinations. What you are aiming at is to show potential employers that you’re familiar with the mechanics of teaching, and so won’t be starting teaching on your own for the very first time after they hire you.


Second, make sure that you document your teaching. This is absolutely vital! Your prospective colleagues will want to know how you taught your classes, and how well they went. In fact, many institutions now ask candidates to submit a “teaching portfolio” documenting their past teaching, and so it would be advisable to start one as soon as possible. Accordingly, you should file copies of all of your syllabi, your midterm and final examinations, and samples of the essay questions that you set your students. You should also keep copies of all the student evaluations of your courses, good and bad, as well as any unsolicited emails or letters that students might write to you praising your teaching. Provided that the bad evaluations don’t constantly outweigh the good ones (and if they do maybe you should reconsider going into academia!) it’s much more impressive to present a complete packet of “unedited” evaluations to your prospective colleagues (with a note to the effect that they are “unedited”) than it is to present a set of hand-picked evaluations that show you in a good light. It’s also been my experience that students like to write comments that are in some way amusing, or show that they know something personal about their instructor. (In my case, they often refer disparagingly to my love of cricket!)


Given this, it’s a very good idea to have your students give you written, as well as numerical, evaluations, even if you’re not required to do so. This is because at least some of them are likely to write nice things about some aspect of your teaching—and nice comments are always more memorable than good numbers. Also, any comments that they might write about any of your interests or hobbies that you mentioned in class (perhaps as part of an example) will help to round you out as a person to your prospective colleagues, and this is likely to help distinguish you from other applicants—which is a good thing! You should also ask your professors (or colleagues, if you are working as an adjunct or an instructor) to observe and write evaluations on your teaching. These could either be kept on file with your letters of recommendation, or else you could keep them yourself in your teaching portfolio. It would be a good idea to have as many people as possible evaluate your teaching in this way. At the minimum, however, you should make sure that at least one member of your committee (who need not be your advisor) observes you teaching several times, so that he or she can write about your teaching in their recommendation letter.


It might be a good idea at this point to mention a few things about how to construct a syllabus. I won’t go into detail here, but a few points are well worth mentioning, especially in the context of my suggestion that you should document your teaching. Many search committees will ask you for copies of your syllabi, either when you apply or at some later point in the process. Even if they don’t, be sure to take copies of your syllabi with you when you interview—including syllabi for courses that you haven’t yet taught, but would be prepared to teach. You’ll always be asked what courses you would be able to teach, and how you would teach them, and it’s much more impressive to talk someone through a course that’s already been prepared than it is to try to recall on the spot how you’d teach a particular course. Given this, you should be thinking of two things when you construct your syllabi: does this provide the information that the students need concerning this course, and will this syllabus show my future colleagues that I am well prepared to teach this course? Luckily, the same criteria will often have to be met for you to answer “yes” to each question!


At minimum, it should be clear in your syllabus what you will be doing each week of the course. (Or, if you don’t want to tie yourself to dates, it should be clear how the topics you will address in the course are related to each other, and in what order they will proceed.) It should also be clear what the content of the course is—a short course description would be useful here—and what you aim to achieve in the course, both substantively (e.g., “Students will learn the views of Mill and Kant”), and procedurally (“They will also learn to assess arguments and analyze information”). You should also make sure that you assign precise readings for each book or article that you are using. Use page numbers here! There’s nothing more off-putting to a search committee than a syllabus that simply has a book title, with a note that you’ll be reading “selections” from it. This gives the impression that while you know you’ll need to teach from that book, you haven’t really prepared the course beyond that decision. It is also a good idea to write a very short introduction to each segment of the course, outlining what sort of questions you’ll be addressing, and showing how this relates to the sections that will precede and follow it.


On a related note, it’s wise to avoid including material in your courses that’s especially partisan, unless you make sure that you also include the other side as well—and do so fairly. (I once saw a syllabus on “Classical Liberalism and Socialism”, where the only “Socialist” text was George Orwell’s 1984!) Also, if you have any teaching innovations that would make you stand out—or would help you retain students in the first few days of classes—make sure they are on the syllabus, too. So, if you will be having guest lecturers, or allow paper rewrites, or hold extensive office hours, make sure these things are noted.


In addition to developing your own classes and documenting your teaching you should also develop a few self-contained “showcase” lectures on diverse subjects that you would be comfortable presenting at short notice to a group of students you don’t know. You can use your own classes to refine and polish these, learning from your students what parts of the lecture in question needs work, what piques interest, whether to pace yourself more slowly or to speed up, and so on. Many institutions now require applicants who have on-campus visits to give a “teaching demonstration” by holding a class with their students, and having lectures that you know will work in different settings will be a huge boon to you if the institution you’re visiting allows you to choose what you will lecture on. Moreover, if you pick the topics of your “showcase” lectures carefully you will be able to present them not just in a classroom setting, but also to interested community groups (for example, you could give a lecture on medical ethics as part of a Continuing Medical Education lecture series at a local hospital) or to student organizations. To secure such positive externalities from your lectures you should pick topics that would be of wide interest. For example, if you teach Modern Philosophy you might like to prepare a lecture on “Descartes and The Matrix,” while if you teach ethics you could develop lectures on, for example, the ethics of cloning or the ethics of euthanasia. Giving such talks will not only help prepare you for any teaching demonstrations that you might be asked to give as part of an on-campus interview, but will also add luster to your CV.


Fourth, don’t teach too much. Although this advice might seem to conflict with my advice to teach as wide a variety of classes as possible, it doesn’t. Rather, the advice not to teach too much is aimed at discouraging you from taking on courses solely to make money. The worst situation you can be in is that whereby you haven’t yet finished your dissertation but you’re teaching several courses a semester to earn enough money to continue in graduate school. (The very worst situation is where you’re teaching at different schools during the same semester, and so have to spend time commuting between them—time that would be better spent writing up your research!) Such adjunct teaching pays very little compared to what you would make as an assistant professor with the same course load, and it really will get in the way of you finishing your dissertation or publishing select parts.


Moreover, I think it’s true to say that many hiring committees have a prejudice against people who have worked for three or four years as adjuncts, for they see them as having failed to get a “real job” and so assume that there must be something “wrong” with them. It would also be a good idea to avoid taking on additional classes at your own institution for extra compensation unless they will help you broaden your range of classes in a way that would make you more employable. The amount of time you would spend teaching such extra courses would be far better spent getting an article out for publication. And remember, if you do need money to cover your living expenses as a graduate student, you could apply for an IHS Humane Studies Fellowship which would allow you to avoid teaching extra courses just to subsist, and instead to focus on writing and publishing your research.


In brief, then, try to teach a wide variety of courses but don’t let this interfere with the timely completion of your degree and the publication of your research. Also, document your teaching, and be sure to have it evaluated by your professors. And, above all, enjoy yourself while teaching—the surest way to get good evaluations is simply to love your subject, and let your enthusiasm for it shine through!


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