Thursday, September 27, 2007

Substitution Stress

This week I did a guest lecture for a colleague who is traveling. It is always strange substituting for someone else, especially in a large undergraduate class. It’s sort of like the first day of class in that the students don’t know you and you don’t know them. On the first day of class, however, there is the expectation that you will have other opportunities to meet, and the students can build their impression of your teaching ability, style, and dedication over the course of many class days.

When you substitute for one class on one day, it’s hard to know if you are an unwelcome disruption of some students' learning experience (i.e., they are already in a routine and enjoying the teaching style of their usual instructor), a welcome change of pace/scenery (though perhaps not as much fun as an in-class movie), or just another professor rambling on about Science at the front of a large lecture room.

The class I taught this week was a giant intro class, so I didn’t know the students and I didn’t know the lecture room. As I was thinking about the lecture before class, I started to stress out a bit, but then I asked myself “How much harm can I do in 50 minutes?”. So I decided instead to focus on telling the students about the topic of the day, not worry about how much or how little I covered, and just try to get a few key points across. I concentrated on thinking of some new examples, images, and demonstrations that would explain some of the more difficult concepts, and this made it fun for me as well.

In the back of my mind – though further back than it might once have been – was concern about projecting at least some intellectual authority to a large group that doesn’t know me. I wasn’t worried about my ability to speak knowledgeably and confidently about the topic, but I am a somewhat-short blonde woman with a soft voice (I have to use a microphone in a large lecture hall), and I was substituting for an intellectually aggressive man who does not need a microphone even in the largest classrooms and who has graying hair and professorial glasses.

A positive aspect of being a substitute is that you’re just blasting in for a day to talk about an interesting topic – you are not the cause of the students’ collective or individual anxiety about exams, and you don’t have to deal with their complicated personal lives (though my colleague has kindly been sharing the bizarre emails he gets every week with tales of woe about missed classes and quizzes). In this particular case, I was also fortunate that it was a nice class. Students asked questions during and after class, and several students thanked me after the class – I can assure you that I do not get thanked after each of my regular classes.

So, despite the stress of preparing an extra lecture and going into someone else’s class and trying to be eloquent and interesting and professorial (in the best sense of the word) with no chance for redemption if I failed, the fun of talking about Science to a large group, the lack of real consequences, and the goodwill of the students counter-balanced the stress and made it an enjoyable experience.


Dr. Lisa said...

I was nervous the first few times I subbed, but now I love it. It's hard to explain why, but I find it liberating. Pedagogically, it's also good for the students to see multiple approaches to teaching the same subject. And I, too, have been lucky enough to be thanked afterwards.

Glad it went well!

Ms.PhD said...

This is why I'm still trying to get a chance to teach at least one lecture here or there. Although from the sound of it, I still won't be remotely prepared to actually run a large intro class myself.