grad skool rulz #16 – about teaching


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Here’s all you need to know about teaching as a PhD student: Don’t teach in graduate school, unless you are targeting the liberal arts college market or it’s a requirement for the degree or financial aid. If you teach, do it well and commit the smallest amount of time and resources.

Shocked? You shouldn’t be. Ask yourself the following question: what justifies a professor’s position in a university?Teaching the subtleties of Attic Greek or Durkheim’s social theory to 20 year olds? No, you justify your position with your research reputation. No research university has built its reputation by finding the best intro French instructors around, though some research faculty develop exceptional teaching skills. If you are serious about the faculty track, research output is the name of the game. Teaching is a bonus and departments often assume that if you can do research in an area, you can usually teach it, even if you have never done it before. Actual teaching experience is usually not a major factor in hiring, aside from the liberal arts schools. In most cases, teaching is inferred from research.

What about the liberal arts colleges? Well, if you look, top liberal arts faculty usually have distinguished publication records, especially in the humanities and social sciences. It’s the international reputation that motivates the $30k+ tuition at these schools. Teaching skill compliments research output, it doesn’t displace it.

The question is: how do you teach well but efficiently? Here’s some tips:

  • Students care that you deliver real content; treat them nice; are speedy, fair, and reasonable in grading; and provide a good classroom experience. Therefore, your work is a waste if it’s not addressing these points.
  • Students don’t care how much you prep the class. They can’t tell the difference between a person who spent 5 hours and 5 minutes on a test. Once you get the hang of lecture notes and hand outs, write them quickly and efficiently. Make sure all lectures have one or two solid take home points. They care about class time experience, not how hard you work.
  • Spend a little time thinking about at least a few fun and memorable topics in your class. Good evaluations are based on people’s positive memories of learning.
  • Spend a little time thinking about the context of the class and what you can do to make it work for both you and the students. An intro soc and senior seminar are way different and you’ll run into problems if you treat them the same. You’ll save a lot of time if you invest a little in figuring what students are looking for and how you can efficiently meet that need and deliver quality content.
  • Optimize grading. If the department can provide a grader, that’s great. If you have to do it yourself, optimize. For example, I can’t find out what a student has learned in 5 questions, but I can usually find out with about 30 questions. Therefore, I never write exams that are longer than 30 questions. The students also feel better that I am not wasting their time with endless tests or assignments.
  • In the humanities and social sciences, you can usually mix in some speakers, project presentations, and films. These free up time and they actually help students learn if they are well chosen.
  • Provide as much as you can online. Personally, I put everything online such as lecture notes, answer keys, syllabus, assignments, and announcements. Helps reduce the # of students who eat up time with mundane bureaucratic matters.
  • Grant all reasonable student requests. If you are efficient with class prep and grading, it will be easy to accommodate the occasional student request at almost no extra cost to yourself. You will also buy good will with all those folks and reduce complaints.
  • Shift all basic skills students to appropriate units in the university. If the person does not have basic English or math skills, don’t take it upon yourself to teach them (unless it is your job). Simply tell them that you aren’t qualified as a basic skills teacher and it is their responsibility to go to office X and sign up for remedial skills tutoring. Most universities have offices now addressing such issues.
  • Re-use and recycle. Borrow other people’s syllabi and other materials. Use old class materials for next semester’s class. Sure, you will be bored once in a while, but that hour spent writing new lecture notes after class can be spent doing research. Once you are tenured, you can try new and creative ideas in class.
  • Time budget: Once a week, have class prep time where you complete any teaching work that was not done in class or in office hours (which are often empty). If you do teaching work outside that time slot, then you have to be more efficient.

In a nutshell: prep and grade quickly; deliver real content and create a positive class experience; and do anything reasonable to create good will among students, long as it doesn’t make more work for you. Once you master these ideas, you’ll see that you will enjoy teaching more. You can spend that hour with a student talking about Foucault instead of worrying about grading that marathon 85 question short answer exam.


Written by fabiorojas

December 10, 2007 at 1:31 am

Posted in academia, fabio

19 Responses

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  1. You should tell my department/university about this idea. Unfortunately, I’ve now prepped and taught 6 different courses while somehow doing my research. Suffice it to say, my research could have been better. I am going to print this out for people in my dept.


    graduate student

    December 10, 2007 at 12:02 pm

  2. I agree with every one of your bullet points on this and I think that they’re important tips for students and junior faculty alike, Fabio. That said, I have to disagree with the first sentence of the post.

    It is important for even the student who ends up at an R1 to have taught in grad school so that they see all this in action and, more importantly, have at least one course prepped for that first year on the job. Granted the ideal course is one during the summer, which typically doesn’t last as long, and therefore one can’t waste as much time on, but I would recommend that everyone teach at least one course before they leave grad school.

    My first year as a faculty member was tough, but it would have been brutal if I didn’t have two of the three courses that I taught prepped (and the third, a grad seminar, I reused and recycled most of the syllabus from when I took a similar class in grad school).

    To a lesser degree, I also think that committees want someone with some teaching experience and, while teaching experience is not the most important part of a vita, it can round out a candidate and show that research isn’t all they know.



    December 10, 2007 at 1:23 pm

  3. I agree with Jessica– the big advice of the post isn’t right. Another complementary reason: when a hiring department has their list of topics/ areas/ etc that constitute “fit” with a position, and their list of courses they imagine this hire covering, there are only two ways to convincingly establish that can check the relevant box. One is with research: “My dissertation is about that/ I’ve published on that.” But for most of us that’s a limited set of things– and often a new, specialized, and idiosyncratic set. The other is with teaching. “I’ve TAed/ taught this staple course.”

    I’m not sure whether Fabio means the “don’t teach” to include the advice “don’t TA.” If not, it would be good to hear that explicitly.


    Jacob T. Levy

    December 10, 2007 at 2:39 pm

  4. I am an advanced grad student and, during the normal academic year, pretty much our only option is to TA — there are very few opportunities for us to teach our own classes. In that case, I have two pieces of advice to compliment Fabio’s:
    1. Be sure to meet with the professor of record BEFORE classes start to get a sense of the class and to figure out where the bulk of the work is going to come (e.g. midterm assignments, tests, quizzes, etc.). You often have the advantage of not having to prep a course, but it also means that you don’t necessarily have control over when major workloads occur. But, if you meet before the syllabus is handed out, many professors are willing to work with you on the scheduling.
    2. Refer questions that do not relate to your TA duties to the professor of record — kind of like shifting basic skills to the appropriate department, shift questions about the reason that content was added, departmental requirements, etc. to the professor (“You should try and meet with Prof. X. His office hours are 1-3pm on Fridays and, if you can’t make that, I’m sure he’d be willing to schedule an appointment).

    Also, for all teaching, I did this my second go-around (let’s say that I had a steep learning curve from one semester to the next):
    Have all students use a header in their e-mails to ask questions [e.g. SOC 100 – Subject] and create an e-mail filter to filter those e-mails. Then, schedule time to respond to e-mail. Student e-mail, more than any other area for me, was a HUGE time-suck. It was easy to say, oh this will only take 5 minutes and respond. But, those 5 min chunks add up. And, often, I ended up spending those 5 minutes repeatedly answering the same question. If I had waited, I would have realized that I was getting the same question and sent an e-mail to the entire class list.

    Also, I had a very clear e-mail policy. On week days, expect a 24-hour turn-around on e-mails and anything sent on Saturday or Sunday would not be answered until Monday evening.



    December 10, 2007 at 3:27 pm

  5. And that pretty much sums up everything that’s wrong with college teaching. I love this site, and the rulz in general, but this is just poor advice. One should never advocate providing less than full dedication to their job when others are paying for your services. I don’t object to the utility of the advice but rather to the integrity and honesty that it lacks. The sole purpose of teaching should not be to result in the best possible student evaluations with the least amount of effort.



    December 10, 2007 at 5:29 pm

  6. I agree with William. I also think that departments and professors should start worrying more about the workloads given to their TAs. In my department most TAs are required to give much more than 20hours/week to do their job properly, because of the high number of students and responsibilities given to TAs. This would benefit both TAs and also undergraduate students.



    December 10, 2007 at 5:56 pm

  7. I read this post in the morning and now, nearly 20 hours later, I still feel speechless. To begin with, the advice in this entry has virtually no common ground with my experience in graduate school or the academy. I would caution all but the brightest researchers—and you really need to have an honest look in the mirror to distinguish between hopes and reality—to weight this advice against your experience and think carefully.

    Thinking about my graduate school experience, I taught both at the M.A. level and for my PhD. I did not TA. This allowed me to leave my M.A. with zero debt and my PhD with very little. Additionally, I left my graduate school with a solid base of teaching experience ranging from basic courses to 3xx level. This wide range of courses also became an extremely successful selling point as I searched for employment and landed a job teaching in a top 25 MBA program. I cannot believe I would have ever landed this job—a job that literally changed the direction of my life and opened up doors to an international lifestyle—without the solid base of teaching experience.

    Professionally, I could never get promoted taking such a view toward teaching (not at the institutions I have worked at, anyway). There are exceptions for the truly brilliant researchers, and that is fair. Some schools will choose to be all about research, and that is fair too. But in my experience, the merely bright young researchers who are weak in the classroom end up at my office per the Dean’s request. “Michael, can you spend some time coaching and peer evaluating?” is the basic nature of the request. I see this as a great service opportunity and a powerful investment into the academic community. But frankly speaking, these good colleagues would have been far better served being mentored by a good teacher while in graduate school. The burden of prepping new courses and getting a research agenda underway, while also dealing with the pressure of not knowing how to teach well and receiving poor student feedback, is an incredible uphill challenge. I would advise most graduate students to choose a good mentor and learn how to teach while you can…before the tenure clock starts ticking.

    And professionally, having been through two AACSB accreditation processes, I know for a fact that the view advocated here would have not been acceptable to the review team (again, in my experience). I also think about the feedback from my previous Dean who is an esteemed professor of marketing at Stanford—a great number of the tenure decisions at the Stanford Graduate School of Business could be made on teaching accomplishments just as easily as they could be on research productivity. That is quite a statement if we think about it.

    Finally, we need to consider our obligation to those who pay our mortgage every month—the government funding and student tuition. I can just hear some ambitious politician quoting this blog entry as an example of everything that is wrong with higher education. I would have to agree. We are already seeing schools come under increased pressure to use more clinical or practice track faculty, and that is simply the reality today. I don’t have to agree with it, but I do need to realize that these pressures change the nature of my job and teaching (as a result) does become more important. We have to have balanced excellence…we have to be productive in terms of both research and teaching. Our employer, surrounding community, and students deserve better. Your personal reputation deserves better! I find this increased demand for excellence to be especially true in a country like Singapore which must shift economic gears and compete purely in a knowledge economy (we have no natural resources) while manufacturing jobs move to China and shipping to Malaysia and China. The implications of even average teaching have profound consequences in this economic setting.

    Research will continue to be the center of academic hiring. I see nothing to even tempt me to think otherwise. That said, having taught on five different continents I am absolutely convinced that good teaching is more important than ever and the best jobs will often (not always) go to those who can research and teach very well. Balanced excellence.

    Think carefully before you send any signal regarding the balance between teaching and research.


    Michael Netzley

    December 10, 2007 at 6:26 pm

  8. “One should never advocate providing less than full dedication to their job when others are paying for your services. ”

    I love teaching and invest a lot of effort in it. But “full dedication” is a lot. I’ve seen it– I went to a boarding school where faculty were expected to live in the dorms and provide in loco parentis duties, in addition to teaching 5 classes per term and coaching a sports team. I’ve also seen it in the university professors who promise to answer every e-mail within 24 hours when they’re teaching 500-person lectures, and who hold office hours every day. It’s emotionally exhausting, it’s disruptive of family life at least as much as “full dedication” to research, and it feeds a sense of student entitlement.

    Yes, the students are paying customers. They pay a fraction of the cost of their educations (even at full-freight elite private schools), but still they are paying customers. But they’re paying for the services of professionals.

    Then add in the fact that research *isn’t* discounted– I think for excellent reason. That means that “full dedication” comes at the expense *not only* of the teacher’s/ TA’s non-work life and emotional energy, but also of the teacher’s/ TA’s career.

    Good teaching is immediately rewarding and potentially all-consuming. So it’s easy to throw oneself into it too completely. If research isn’t going to be discounted all the way down to zero, then professors will need to know how to satisfice rather than maximize, because our jobs have more than one obligation. Satisficing can be done at higher or lower levels, but it’s still not “full dedication.”

    And grad students, faced with the huge unpleasant task of dissertation writing and (at many institutions) especially vulnerable to a kind of undergraduate bullying, *really* need to know to satisfice.

    That doesn’t mean just “best possible student evaluations with the least amount of effort.” We all know how to do that: all movies all the time followed by As for everyone. The students who wanted an education will have dropped out before eval time. Fabio said: “do it well and commit the smallest amount of time and resources.” That’s a crucial distinction.


    Jacob T. Levy

    December 10, 2007 at 6:37 pm

  9. continued: the smallest amount of time and resources to it takes to teach well isn’t zero, and isn’t small. But it’s bounded, it’s finite. Fabio’s first point notes that students care that you “deliver real content; treat them nice; are speedy, fair, and reasonable in grading; and provide a good classroom experience.” He did not advocate skimping on what’s important in teaching. (Real content is hard, and grading is time consuming! etc.)

    But we should not be asking grad students to stretch out their graduate careers by 3+ years because of their teaching duties. The rulz have an orientation toward successfully completing graduate school with prospects for future employment. Many, many grad students are overstretched by TAing and teaching obligations, and get stuck in grad school for extra years as a result. All the high horses in the world about paying customers and taxpayers don’t entitle the undergraduates to 90-hour a week commitments from the grad student TAs (or grad student teachers) who might be making $20,000 per year if they’re very lucky.


    Jacob T. Levy

    December 10, 2007 at 6:46 pm

  10. Can someone spell out where Fabio suggests anything less than “full dedication to one’s job” or promotes not fulfilling our “obligations” to our students?

    As I said in an earlier comment, I agree that we should learn how to teach well as part of our graduate education to prepare us for the future and that it’s important to learn how to teach so that one doesn’t have to spend an inordinate amount of time on it when they’re trying to adjust to life on the tenure track. However, I don’t see how Fabio’s bullet points are orthogonal to “good teaching” or to what students, our chairs, or our universities want us to do.



    December 10, 2007 at 6:57 pm

  11. This model may not be in a different direction than what your Chair or Dean wants. But is this the kind of career that you want? Thus, my advice to think carefully. The answer can go both ways.

    The first assumption seems to be that teaching is something we need to get out of the way as quickly as possible so that we can turn our attention to something more important. On the other hand, the world is filled with examples of successful academics who actively integrate teaching and research, and have amazing results. We can do both extremely well, it is not a 90 hour a week commitment (obviously), we can graduate on time, and we can build a personal reputation for being very good at both. That seems like a great platform for a career.

    Second look at the assumptions being made about students. Please them, give them a good experience, give them good memories, give lots of content knowledge, and basically manage this with enough smarts to earn at least acceptable evaluations. I wonder how students would react to this portrait? Beyond that, where in this equation does learning actually occur? What part of this model has a strong relationship to actual student learning (as seen in the pedagogical research literature to date)?

    As a reference point, check out Ken Bain’s book on What The Best College Teachers Do.

    More recently, we have neuroscience research telling us that good pedagogy actually builds the brain and creates new pathways. Not only do students get knowledge and skills from a quality educational experience, but we are in the most literal sense building pathways in the brain–pathways that students will use after graduation. If changing the physical nature of someone’s brain does not add up to an obligation, then I am not sure what does. We need to ask ourselves how our courses potentially impact this building process. How do we actually promote deep learning?

    My experience base suggests that we can be equally effective (if not more) by trying to integrate teaching and research rather than trying to get one or the other out of the way (depending on if you are tenure or clinical track). And in the process, I sincerely believe we can serve our students and ourselves very well by choosing the integration route.

    To be fair, we can choose either route and someone’s new Chair or Dean may have preferences. But from a purely practical point of view, why not choose the path that lets you be good at both and enrich your potential as a relatively young academic? From the neuroscience point of view, I think we must generally choose the path of balanced excellence.

    At Notre Dame go check out the MBA corporate reputation class taught out of the Fanning Center. There you will find one interesting example of a more integrated approach (just as an example close to home). Like everyone I have ever met at ND, you will find this prof to be a very welcoming fellow.



    Michael Netzley

    December 10, 2007 at 8:29 pm

  12. I understand your position, Michael, and you’re talking to someone (if you’re talking to me, which I assume you are since you refer to ND at the end of the comment) who works diligently to be good at both teaching and research – which is one of the reasons I chose Notre Dame in the first place – and to engage my students in ways that others don’t bother with.

    I think that it is sad that so many people see teaching as just a necessary part of their job and treat it as significantly less important than their research. However, I still hear the bulk of Fabio’s advice as trying to help young scholars figure out how to manage to do both well (particularly those who are interested in going somewhere that values research much more than teaching).



    December 10, 2007 at 9:09 pm

  13. Over the years, I’ve tried to figure out which parts of my teaching work actually enhance student learning or student satisfaction, and which ones were very time-consuming for little payoff in either satisfaction or learning. Doing a good job and spending a lot of time working are not the same thing. This is true for research as well, by the way. Also, a cheerful attitude helps when you are setting boundaries with students. (I know, I know, I’m the queen of negativity. But I worked on impression management in teaching once I finally figured out that it mattered a lot. A small investment with a big payoff.)



    December 11, 2007 at 4:21 am

  14. The advice is right. You have to minimize your teaching time in graduate school in order to put together the requisite research record to secure future employment.


    Thorsetin Veblen, Esq

    December 11, 2007 at 8:18 am

  15. […] ein interessanter Artikel aus Fabios Grad Skool Rulz, diesmal über die Lehre in Graduiertenkollegs, also aktiv, wenn man selbst eine Lehrveranstaltung übernimmt (wie ich es beispielsweise auch […]


  16. My opinion: you should find three other people, preferably in three other disciplines and filling different cells of gender/life-situation diversity, and make your combined rules into a book. The other people will be good to triangulate perspectives. It doesn’t have to be any kind of more book-like prose, the format of your posts actually works pretty well.



    December 11, 2007 at 3:46 pm

  17. […] December 11, 2007 at 8:16 pm · Filed under 2nd fall, ACADEMIC and tagged: advice, teaching Fabio has updated the “grad skool rulz” list. The latest, #16, is “about teaching.”  […]


  18. […] grad skool rulz #16 – about teaching […]


  19. One of the things that I’ve painfully learned teaching classrooms filled with non-majors (we don’t offer a soc major) is that what is “the best” for them is not the same as my vision of the topic.

    They grapple both with understanding the basics and, sometimes, their emotional reactions to some of the topics (every time I show A Girl Like Me the students are stunned at watching children call the black doll “bad” and then identifying with in). I may be interested in nuances, or contrasting ideas. They are not cognitively prepared to appreciate it.

    Grad school is a while ago, but these GSR#16, while a little cynical, are basically applying the 80/20 rule in a reasonable way. Thanks!


    Sister Edith

    January 20, 2008 at 4:53 am

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