Thursday, March 29, 2012

Starting From Zero, Again

This comment, from a postdoc, on Monday's post intrigued me:
I think it would be depressing to teach a similar course over and over again. It would feel like every year you go back to point 0 and have to start with another set of ignorant students all over again.
In fact, it's not depressing at all. Sure, certain aspects of teaching the same course over and over can get tedious, and that's one reason why many of us make changes to our course content from time to time, but, at least for me, it is not depressing, and certainly not for the reason the postdoc proposes.

In fact, that's part of the fun of it for me: hitting reset, starting over, beginning with a new group of students who don't yet know the awesome things you are going to teach them (this is not the same as being "ignorant"), and then watching them progress through the term. If all (or most) goes well*, it can be very satisfying. Surely there is an annoying analogy involving gardening/farming and the seasons, or something like that?

[* that is, not too many high-maintenance students, no cheaters etc.]

It's the same with advising grad students, and that's not depressing either.

Does anyone agree with the postdoc about feeling depressed (or other negative feeling) about having to start over at "point 0" with each new group of students? Or perhaps people who feel that way won't pursue a career involving teaching(?). And if they do pursue a career involving teaching, will they always feel that way, or see that, in fact, the rebooting aspect of teaching is not depressing? It would be particularly interesting to hear from someone who thought that it might be depressing to start from the beginning again and again, but found that it wasn't. Or vice versa.

29 comments:

Anonymous said...

When I was an undergraduate, I asked my research advisor essentially the exact same question, and I was honestly surprised by his answer (basically the same as yours... no, it is not depressing or boring to reset). And now that I am a professor, I have found his response to be spot on. It is *never* boring or depressing to "start over." Maybe because in many ways it doesn't feel like starting over. New students, new faces, new material (I try to put new stuff in every year). What can I do better this year? What new lit papers can I use this year? I find it refreshing and exciting to start over each year.

Anonymous said...

Dear FSP,

Thank you for bringing up this point. I am a postdoc who had a visiting teaching job before my current position. Thinking about a future where I'd have to teach the same thing over and over was a deal breaker for me. Sure, courses evolve and we don't teach the same things we did 40 years ago. However, that evolution is extremely slow. In that regard, I find research way more satisfying and exciting. I enjoy teaching but I would not feel like I am growing as a professional the way I do when I work on my research.

Anonymous said...

I find it boring and depressing to teach the same things over and over again. OTOH I enjoy teaching. So what I tend to do is not to teach the same course more than two years in a row. That way I get to teach something new every couple of years, and learn quite a few new things in the process.

SocSciProf said...

I taught the same class (a lab-based anatomy course) differently and better the second time around. The third time, I thought I would be excited and teach it even better, but I found it frustrating and depressing to start over.

In my case, I attribute it to my career stage - the first two times, I was in grad school and was excited about possibilities. The third time, I was actively on the (virtually non-existent in my field) job market. Teaching this course (which is not particularly useful to anyone except those who want to go into my specialty, where there are no jobs) felt disingenuous. Why care whether the students are learning?

I'm taking this semester off of teaching to focus on research. I clearly needed to reboot.

Prof-like Substance said...

You know what would be depressing and a deal breaker - having to come up with a new course design on a regular or even semi-regular basis. I think anyone who sees teaching the same material for a number of years has never built a class from scratch and has NO IDEA how many hours that takes. I actually like the fine-tuning of a course over time, but the initial set-up is killer.

Dr Becca said...

I am teaching for the first time this semester, a mid-upper level lecture class that I designed myself. Creating this class was more work than I ever imagined, and I think I would die if I had to teach a different course next semester. The tradeoff of having slides already made will far outweigh any potential boredom, I'm sure of it. Having to create another new class from scratch--THAT would be starting from zero, again.

a physicist said...

I agree with a lot of the original post, but here's yet another reason I enjoy teaching the same class over and over again: I enjoy being in front of an audience. It's fun to prepare for a class that I am confident will go well, because I remember how well it's gone before.

Imagine if actors would say, "I'm not looking forward to performing today because it's yet again another audience that hasn't seen Act One of my play." The whole point is that one can enjoy acting (or teaching) because of a fresh audience.

Someone might argue that actors don't perform the same play for 30 years, but I think that's a poor analogy. I may teach Intro Physics 1 for 30 years, but it's really a series of 40 one-hour classes. I think actors might easily perform a play 30 times and be OK with that.

And really, given that we don't have to stick to a script when we teach... that just makes it easier to fine-tune a class when it's taught again, as others have pointed out. Teaching a class that has elements that I know worked well before, plus adding in new tweaks that I think will make things even better... it's great!

Cherish said...

I've wondered about this. I have really enjoyed teaching physics and engineering classes, but after spending four straight semesters teaching the same geology labs over and over, I couldn't deal any more. The subject matter was very boring by that point (I could pretty much do it in my sleep), and the students really hated science and therefore the class.

I have postulated that if I had more ability to change content, I might have enjoyed it more (such as if I'd been doing the lecture portion instead of the labs), but I suspect is has more to do with content and students than anything else. Students in engineering and those who take physics (even as a general ed, because they are usually science majors) are far more on the ball than the ones who are suffering through a general ed geology class. They also aren't math phobic, and I personally prefer teaching more math-oriented content.

So my answer is that, yes, it can drive you crazy...but I think it depends on the class and the students.

Anonymous said...

I was a faculty in STEM and yes, I felt bored teaching the same course over and over again. I actually enjoyed teaching and mentoring very much and my students gave me very positive response. I felt teaching was a lot of drama-theater-thing associated with it, where you perform in front of students. Unless you are a good actor, you can not be a good teacher irrespective of your career stage. I took new courses to teach every 2 or 3 years to kept myself motivated, but finally after 8 years or so, I felt saturated and moved on with my life. I quit my secure job. I am a research faculty now, and thoroughly enjoy challenges of research and never felt bored (more than 10 years now).

Anonymous said...

I thought this link is relevant on the current discussion;

http://matt-welsh.blogspot.in/2012/01/making-universities-obsolete.html

Anonymous said...

Teaching it the first time is hard, the second and third times better because you aren't working as hard and can fine-tune, then eventually it gets boring. So my best teaching is probably in iteration 2 or 3 of a course. But I'm usually happy to do it for longer just because it's less work than switching to a new one.

When one is perpetually super busy with research and admin, teaching new courses all the time is one of those things that sounds idealistically good but in practice would be very painful. Just like it would be good for you to learn a new language every year in some sense, but hell to actually try to fit that into your life.

GMP said...

After the initial course preparation, I like to teach that same course 2-3 times in a row; it helps smooth out the rough edges, get rid of unnecessary material, and redistribute the time (more time on important topics students struggle with, less on some of lower importance or those that students grasp easily). But I find that after teaching 3-4 times in a row, I need a break from that class for a few years if I am to enjoy it again.

The most tedious aspect of teaching and advising combined is teaching new graduate students how to write technical papers. I think this is an immensely important part of graduate training and I take pride in training my grad students well as technical writers, but with each new grad student working on those first couple of papers makes me want to pull my hair out. I know it's necessary, but it sure is painful -- the mistakes are different, yet the issues are generally the same. And some students are so darn stubborn... *sigh*

Anonymous said...

I would be curious if people's perceptions would shift more to the side of boring/depressing if teaching was their only role. This was the main reason I decided not to pursue K-12 teaching. Teaching at a university doesn't get boring to me because it is only part of the job, and the other part (research) is almost the complete opposite of repetitive.

Anonymous said...

I do not find it depressing. I can sympathize with the post-doc's worry because I had it myself before I was a professor. But I do it for two opposing reasons. (1) It is satisfying to get a 'do-over' because this is really the only part of our career where we can have that. (2) It is not a complete do-over, unless you envision teaching as being a one-way communication to a silent audience. In each class there will be certain students who provide new insight, questions, or ideas. You can actually fine-tune a course like you do in many aspects of your research. And teaching can be assessed and improved just like research. It is not static. Furthermore, there is a wealth of research ON teaching and curriculum so even if our research is in physics (e.g.), we can use techniques developed to improve classroom teaching and continue to improve/replace them with time.

plam said...

A lot of the comments so far have mentioned teaching something for a number of times and then changing courses. That may be ideal. I've never taught anything for more than 2 years in a row so far. Maybe 3 years might be better for reusing materials. In any case, there is certainly a lot of potential for teaching different courses (at least for me).

I definitely have a lot of ideas for course development on the courses that I've taught previously.

Lisa C. said...

I agree that its much harder starting from scratch- although the challenge is fun. Teaching the same thing over & over does not get tedious or boring, each semester I teach the same intro class. I love that I can tweak it & find new material & update things each time. It also allows me to incorporate different teaching strategies- utilizing group work, web resources, etc to try to give the students a better experience.

Anonymous said...

It's different each time because you understand the material better, and differently, each time. Unless you think you understand the basics of your subject perfectly and completely already. (Pro tip: You don't.)

Emma said...

I like a lot to prepare a new class, I kind of like to improve it when I teach it a second time, and I start to find it very boring by the third year. Ideally, I would change all the classes I teach every two or three years but as it is a lot of work to build new material, I have a slower turn over, and as a result I am quite bored with some of my classes.

Nodakademic said...

I think it's nice, because once you're familiar with the content of the course, you can challenge yourself as an instructor. Try out different types of assignments. Online components, if they're available. Group versus individual projects. Etc. While I see the freshness and variety of different classes as a bonus for sure, I also find comfort being overly familiar with the subject matter of a repeat class. You can somewhat anticipate what students will struggle with, and what questions they may have.

Anonymous said...

I have to echo folks saying that having to teach NEW courses all the time would be harder than re-teaching the same course repeatedly. Reteaching courses might get old in the future but currently I like it as it lets me refine and improve the course. Teaching new courses always involves at least a couple of 'opps' experiences. Times when something just doesn't work (lecture, lab, or assignment) and you're left feeling like you've wasted your time as well as your student's time. Reteaching courses there can still be problems (e.g. loved my exam question that very subtly gave away the answer with the figure - opps) but you get a chance to iron many of them out and make the course really work. I've taught a couple classes repeatedly and always try keep at the forefront the though that this is their first time with this material and that keeps me enthusiastic about sharing it.

Anonymous said...

I'm at a PUI and I had 9 brand new course preps in my first two years. I was so relieved to teach the courses over again a few times. Now, that I've taught some of the courses >10 times, I keep things interesting by changing the courses regularly as I get ideas from conferences and journals. I'm flipping the classroom in one of my courses this semester.

Anonymous said...

I'm curious about what PUI prof (anon 5:54) means about 'flipping the classroom' - I heard that phrase recently elsewhere and am not sure what it means. A little pedagogical enlightenment?

unlikelygrad said...

I've never done it for a college course, but I have taught the same course >5 times, and I loved it every single time. I went from being a mediocre instructor to downright awesome. By the third or fourth time around I felt that the students were catching on so much better than they were the first time.

And though I thought that I couldn't improve any more than I had...I DID. I continued to get more awesome with time. But then, I love to teach, and I love to tweak classes to optimize my teaching methods...

unlikelygrad said...

Anonymous@7:52:

"Flipping the classroom" means you have the students watch the lecture on video as "homework", then you have them work problems etc. in class. This is done because they tend to need your help more for the stuff that's traditionally done as homework than they do for lecture.

Doctor Pion said...

I blogged about one aspect of this several years ago: teach the same way Keith Richards plays Jumpin' Jack Flash for the zillionth time.

Each new group of students deserves the best you have to offer, and the ones I have now get more than the first students I taught!

Anonymous said...

I left higher ed after my Ph.D. and ended up becoming a high school science teacher because I preferred teaching to research.

At first, I thought teaching the same class over-and-over within a day or two would be tedious. It is certainly tedious to _observe_ the same class over and over.

But as at teacher, I find that really it's a chance to a) experiment with and continuously improve my approach to teaching that material -- my fifth iteration of a lesson is almost always more effective than my first and b) a chance to put some of the content related decisions of teaching on autopilot and concentrate more on making sure all the individual students in my class are "getting it".

This year I have 5 sections of one course and 1 of another, and I'm sure that one of the reasons I feel like a much more effective teaching in the multi-section course is the chance to practice and refine.

JaneB said...

I love the fact that I'm not scrabbling around preparing EVERYTHING and can do the fine adjustments needed to suit THIS group of students in front of me. I definitely grow as a professional every time I teach. I also find that regularly revisiting basic concepts, looking for the right readings and figures etc. is very grounding for my research practice.

It's like the difference between trying to analyse a sample using a new technique - one that is cool, but you just don't really know exactly how to do this and are sticking to default settings and feel a little nervous about the paper because maybe someone who knows better will tell you you did it wrong - and using something you're really confident with, where because you've been doing it for ten years or designed and built the machine yourself you are absolutely confident about optimising the readings from your sample and get to focus on the needs of the scientific question rather than the technique. The former is kind of hair-raising, the latter is so much fun I can't believe I get paid to do it some days. Ramp the fun down a degree or two (I ALWAYS feel like teaching is WORK and that I earn my pay!), and it's the same for repeat teaching.

JaneB said...

I have set up at least one new course every year for fourteen years now. It has somewhat affected my research career. This perhaps makes me fonder of repeat teaching! (as PLS said above)

David S said...

Thanks for taking up my question FSP. It has been interesting for me to see the range of responses here. I certainly appreciate that setting up a new course is much more work, so I wouldn't want to be doing new courses every year either.

I hope that in future I'll have the chance to find out what I really feel about teaching, from experience. I can imagine that my current expectations might turn out to be wrong.