Doctoral students work hard for a few to >> a few years, focusing intently on research and, at many US universities, on taking classes for the first few years. It is an intense time, and for many it is a very stressful time, in part because there may be uncertainty as to whether there will be (appealing) job opportunities at the end of all the years of graduate study.
Graduate students and postdocs in science, engineering, and math have an array of possible career paths, and sometimes it takes a while to figure out what is the best option. Although some doctoral students know from the beginning that they want an academic career, some are less sure about this. Those who are uncertain are not necessarily less dedicated to education and are not destined to be lousy teachers.
Whether or not a grad student's career goal involves academia, many graduate students are teaching assistants for some or all of their time in graduate school. In the sciences, this typically means teaching labs or leading discussion sections. Being a TA is an introduction to teaching, but it isn't sufficient preparation for many who later become professors.
Some universities offer courses or workshops for graduate students and postdocs who are considering an academic career. Some of these courses also discuss aspects of acquiring a job, and some are devoted to teaching preparation (writing a syllabus, the mechanics of teaching). These courses are useful, but, again, are not sufficient preparation for teaching an entire class as a professor.
Considering these constraints and issues -- that doctoral students do need to focus quite a lot on research during their graduate studies and do not necessarily know that they want a career involving teaching -- is there a better way to prepare doctoral students and postdocs to be professors who both teach and do research? Being better prepared to teach would benefit both professors and students.
For now, let’s not worry about money or institutional resistance to dramatic changes or other major obstacles to reforming the system and consider whether there are ways in which we can reform graduate education to better prepare future faculty for the teaching component of their jobs. The money aspect is of course important because time = money, and adding teaching training would add time. Who would pay for this? How much would it cost? Let us ignore those questions for now.
If time/money were not issues, graduate students who wanted to prepare for academic positions could get more teaching experience, not just as teaching assistants in labs, but also as student-teachers responsible for the lecture component of a course (with close mentoring by an experienced faculty member), and eventually as instructors of a course (with some but less intense mentoring by a faculty member).
This would not be mandated, but it would need to be made clear that participating in such training is important for those considering an academic career. There would need to be a well-developed program of graduate advising that provided students with the information they needed to make informed decisions about this, and there would need to be departmental oversight so that advisors did not get to decide whether or not their advisees participated in such a system. There would need to be higher-level oversight of departments to make sure that grad students weren't simply being used as cheap teaching labor but were participating in a carefully organized career development program.
To learn to teach, you have to teach. I personally do not believe that courses that focus on pedagogical techniques are particularly useful. I have participated in teaching workshops and have found them to be quite useless, perhaps because these particular workshops were led by people who had absolutely no experience teaching the kinds of courses I teach in the type of environment in which I teach them and who were willing to toss out most course content in order to “teach students to think”. I'm all for teaching students to think, but I would also like to give them interesting things to think about.
But this is not a teaching workshop rant. I mention it here to explain why I am not proposing that grad students rush over to the education department/college and start taking courses there. And I hasten to add that I have colleagues in the education department, that I have worked with them on developing teaching modules, and that I am not totally against education specialists. I have, however, had some bad teaching workshop experiences.
In any case, in this unrealistic no-money-worries system, the teaching component would be an integrated aspect of graduate school, not something tacked on at the end. Professors have to balance their time between research and teaching (and other things), and it is important to learn some successful strategies for doing this. The current sink-or-swim approach of seeing which new professors will make it through tenure with their sanity, health, and families intact is not a great one. An integrated research-teaching experience in grad school or during a postdoc would also emphasize that teaching is not an afterthought or just something else we professors have to do so that we can focus on something more important.
This system would not be easy to implement because an instructor needs to convey confidence and must have the respect of the students, so the faculty mentors would have to be selected carefully and would have to know when to intervene and when to hold back, both for the good of the proto-professor’s training and for the good of the students in the class. The educational needs of the undergraduates in these classes are paramount, otherwise we are not replacing our current flawed system of letting inexperienced professors loose on undergrads with a better system.
I once offered to team-teach with, or somehow mentor, an assistant professor who was struggling with teaching. When I discussed this with the Chair, he said "If you have time to do that, you have time to teach the entire class yourself." He assigned the (large intro) class to me and gave the struggling assistant professor a break from teaching. This made me reluctant to volunteer to do such things in the future. In my hypothetical new system, mentoring activities would be factored into a senior professor's work load and would be valued by the department and the university.
I also think that such a system could be implemented without adding a substantial amount of time to a typical graduate program, but it would add some time. To pay for that time, funding agencies and universities would need to put more money behind so-called "broader impacts" involving graduate training.
- The importance of teaching, even at a research university, must be conveyed to graduate students and postdocs considering an academic career and must be emphasized during the faculty hiring process;
- Careful mentoring of professor in their first year, including peer evaluation of teaching, involvement in any on-campus teaching training that is deemed useful by the department, and possibly team-teaching with a sympathetic and helpful senior professor
- New professors should not be hurled into large introductory level courses unless they already have some experience with such courses.
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The writer of this post seems like a person who might give me an A if I took a course from her.
_ Fervently agree because I am an A student and I would deserve that A.
_ Agree to some extent but I don't really want to commit other than being mildly positive.
_ Don't really have an opinion even though that indicates that I am a lame, spineless person.
_ Rabidly disagree because she is clearly an unhinged hysteric who hates snakes.
2 months ago