Everyone in academia knows it and no one likes to admit it: faculty often have to teach courses in areas that they don’t know very well. With the fall term rapidly approaching, we’ve invited Therese Huston to share some strategies for teaching new material. Huston is the founding Director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at Seattle University, and the author of Teaching What You Don’t Know, a practical guide for making it through the anxiety of teaching outside one’s specialty. In this first installment of a three-part series, Huston starts at the beginning: designing the course.
The word “professor” is almost synonymous with “expert.” We each work diligently for years to acquire specialized knowledge, to become a trusted authority in our discipline, and to make insightful judgments about our chosen craft. To be an academic is, at its core, to be an expert.
And thankfully, much of the time, our teaching aligns nicely with our expertise. If you’re a botanist, you teach about plants, and if you’re an expert on ancient Greek philosophy, you teach about Plato. (At least in a good economy, you teach about Plato). When all is well with the world, we teach what we know best.
But what if you’ve been assigned to teach a topic that sits outside of your expertise, a course that spills into areas you haven’t yet mastered? What if you’re a botanist whose been assigned to teach “Introduction to Zoology?” or a Plato expert who’s been nudged into two sections of “Ethics of the Internet?” If I’ve just described your situation, you might be worried that you’re going to spend the term just a chapter ahead of your students.
Welcome to the club. I hope you won’t be disappointed, but it’s hardly an exclusive one. Faculty from the most cutting-edge research institutions (think Harvard, Stanford, and Ohio State) to the most teaching-focused small colleges (think Carleton and Bowdoin Colleges) confide that at one point or another, they have found themselves teaching outside of their expertise. For some faculty, it happens in their first or second year of teaching, and for others, it’s a startling turn of events mid- or late career.
In this three-part series, I’ll offer some best practices and findings from the research literature on how to teach material you’re still mastering. With the right approach, you’ll spend more of your time teaching clearly and effectively and much less time worrying and preparing material that you’ll never get a chance to teach.
We’ll start today with some tips on designing the course.
Perhaps you’ve been designing your course all summer. Perhaps you’ve just started. Either way, you want your students to have an effective learning experience and you don’t want to drown in the process. There are two critical steps you can take before the course begins to ensure that your course is well-designed and you’re ready for the deepest waters.
First, find five syllabi you like. The Internet makes quick work of such research, and it’s the best 60 minutes you’ll spend in the planning stages. Comparing syllabi from five different professors (presumably professors who do have expertise in the topic) tells you what the fundamental readings and concepts should be, how those concepts are typically sequenced, and where you might turn for additional information. You should look for syllabi that are from institutions similar to your own. If you’re at a state college, for instance, you could include one syllabus from an Ivy League school if it inspires you, but if all five syllabi are from schools with different expectations of students and faculty, you could be setting yourself up for an untenable workload and many student complaints.
It’s easy to make the beginner’s mistake of printing out one compelling syllabus and modeling your course accordingly, but if you’re trying to get a big picture view of what matters, look for patterns across courses. How do the readings and assignments in your course compare to what your peers have assigned? Remember—that’s your workload as well as your students’. If you’ve already designed most of your course, comparing your syllabus with a few others will increase your confidence and give you a few more concrete teaching ideas.
The second strategic step is to contact a content expert. You don’t have to reach out to the foremost expert in the field—simply look for someone who has taught this topic before and who knows it reasonably well. In my research, I found that some faculty contact their favorite professors from their own days in college, while others reach out to a peer on campus.
You don’t need to confess that you’re teaching material that’s a stretch for you, but you can say “This will be my first time teaching this course and I want to do it well.” If you can meet in person then invite your expert to coffee and work your way through these three strategic questions:
- “What are common student misconceptions around this topic?”
- “What are the two or three hardest abstract concepts that students really need to know?”
- “What are your favorite concrete examples that illustrate those abstract concepts?”
These questions save you time later because they give you material you can use in class. Better yet, they save you from drowning because you can anticipate where the deepest and murkiest waters will be. Abstract concepts that are hard for your students might be hard for you as well. Chances are that clinging to one explanation of those nebulous concepts isn’t going to be enough because students are going to have questions. You’ll be relieved if you have answers. With the invaluable advice of your content expert, you’ll know where to invest more time preparing for class and when you need multiple examples and explanations ready and waiting.
There’s another golden reason to ask about abstract concepts—you’ll be a better teacher. Research shows that when an instructor has just learned the material, he’s likely to focus on the concrete details in class (those come easily) and skip over the abstract concepts (those are hard won). If you get some tips on how to handle the abstract concepts, you’ll feel more comfortable addressing them in class and students will learn more.
Wondering how you’ll establish credibility in a course where you’re not the expert you’d like to be? We’ll look at that next week.