practical phd

a transparent source for all things PhD

I’ve officially survived my first semester as an Assistant Professor!  Coming into the job was entering a black box. I had balanced research and teaching before, but only with one course.  I had also done service, but as a graduate student when I had control over what I did and how much. So navigating research, teaching, and service in a new institution and with a new workload, while adjusting to living in a new place, was an unknown.  Thankfully some of my prior experiences prepared me for the job and for managing my expectations when life inevitably happened.  

What Prepared Me

The first and most important experience I had before my tenure track job was experience teaching.  I had previously developed and taught two courses so I have no new course preps in my first year. I highly recommend that graduate students do more than TA if possible.  Teaching someone else’s curriculum is very different than developing and teaching your own. Yes, you develop pedagogical skills while TAing, but you don’t have to think about your pedagogical goals (beyond reinforcing the professor’s teachings) and how to implement them through readings, lectures, activities, and assignments in the same way as when you teach your own course.  

Coming into this year with two tested syllabi has also been a major time saver.  Curriculum development is an intensive process. Not only do you have to decide on learning objectives, sections, readings, and assignments, but you also have to prepare each and every course meeting from scratch.  Even with changes I made to my syllabus, I only had 3 learning units that required more intensive preparations this semester. I spent an hour max each week on lecture and activity prep for all other sections, which freed up my time for grading and course administration.  It also meant I had much more time to do research than I would have with a new course prep.  

The second experience I had before this year that helped me navigate my new job was having a baby as a graduate student.  Now, I’m not saying all graduate students should have a baby! This is obviously not something that all of you will want to do or be able to do, but that doesn’t mean you won’t have a life interruption that provides similar lessons.  Babies are unpredictable. You think you’ve got a routine down and two weeks later everything changes. I had to learn to be less of a planning freak and adjust my goals and expectations for work based on what was possible to accomplish in the time I had to work.  I learned to forgive myself, reward myself for what I accomplished, and be okay with not every day and every week being equally productive. Having a major health problem or being involved with carework for a sick family member or friend would lead to similar experiences.  

This semester the experience helped me through a move, an abrupt change in child care, an illness, and some other interruptions that affected my work schedule, my concentration, and my energy.  When things got rough, I prioritized work with deadlines, which were mainly my teaching responsibilities, a couple of grant applications, and a revise and resubmit deadline, and forgave myself for falling behind on other things.  Life happens! You can’t be 100 percent with your work all of the time.  

What I Learned

While I was prepared for part of what my first semester entailed, there was a fair amount that was new.  I was teaching two courses for the first time, teaching large courses (110 students in each section), and doing faculty service work for the first time.  The biggest lessons I learned were on the teaching front as my service responsibilities were much lighter than I expected.  

First I should point out that I ended up teaching 220 students my first semester because of an attempt to reduce my teaching load in the first semester.  As background, the year I was hired there was a policy change in when hires could use course releases. Instead of being able to use them to ease into the full teaching load, new hires couldn’t use their course releases until their third year when they would have feedback on their progress from a review at the end of the second year and be able to use release time to “right their course” towards tenure.  To offset going straight into a 2-2 load, I negotiated my teaching for the first year, which led to me teaching two sections of the same course in the fall and a grad course and senior seminar on the same content in the spring. What I didn’t realize is the size of the classes I was to teach in the fall, which meant having 220 students across both sections. Having two sections of the same course reduced prep for class, but increased course administration and grading substantially, which was a lot even with two wonderful Graduate Assistants helping me.  In contrast, my spring semester is likely to be 30 undergrads and maybe 10 grad students. What I learned: For the future, I plan to balance a large lecture course with a smaller course even though that will mean prepping for two different courses. To achieve this, I’ve begun a plan for new course development over the next 5 years so that I have adequate smaller and larger courses to alternate and not get bored.  

I’ve also been using my first semester experience to reflect on how to roll out new courses.  Inevitably, the first time I teach a course I have too much reading and sometimes too many assignments.  So I’m going to try to teach new courses first as graduate seminars. This will allow me to review the readings in closer detail to decide what is appropriate for an undergraduate course without having to do that before teaching the class.  (I do a lot of work on reading selection and course design before teaching, but do not prepare readings and lecture until I need to since I honestly won’t remember them.) Using this approach will also give me time to figure out how to best organize the course to integrate my core goals for undergraduate teaching: to help students understand (1) their own experiences and (2) the world around them.  

Finally, teaching a course that large inevitably meant teaching a lot of non-Sociology majors and a lot of first and second year students, in contrast to my prior experience of teaching junior and senior Sociology majors.  While I always teach my courses assuming no prior knowledge, the mix of majors AND years meant that students had more of a range of levels of comfort with the type of reading they were assigned and the writing assignments that I use instead of multiple choice exams.  I’m still wrapping my head around how to address this without reverting to in class exams and multiple choice, but the issue is flagged for the next time I teach the course.

All in all, the first semester has been productive and challenging.  I’ve learned a lot, particularly about the kind of instructor I want to be, while pushing forward my research agenda thanks to the experiences that prepared me for this moment.  Since my service load was light, I expect to face new challenges in the semesters to come as I’m called on more to serve the department and the university.  

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