Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Learning Curve: Reflections on Early Career Teaching

*This post is part of a series in which professors reflect on the practical lessons they have learned in the transition from graduate school to employment.

I was fortunate to receive many opportunities to teach as a graduate student at the University of Toronto, so that when I went on the job market, I didn’t have to write my teaching statements on the basis of what I would do but rather on what I had done. In fact, I suspect that what set me apart among many other applicants for position was my diverse teaching experiences. In brief, I’ve been teaching since 2011 at four different universities and colleges; two have been public universities in the United States, one a public university in Canada, and one a private liberal arts college in the United States. I’ve guest-lectured in classes at a variety of other institutions. My research specialization is in early Christianity, but like most professors, I’ve also taught more general courses such as Judaism, Christianity, & Islam and Introduction to Religious Studies. My observations about early career teaching for this blog post are thus drawn from a range of students, courses, administrative settings, and campus climates.

My first observation after these few years is that students really want a professor who is an expert in their field. It’s 2016; my students know how to use Wikipedia if they want to get the basics on a topic. What they want in a professor is someone who is trained to assess the information they encounter in such sources and who can help them understand where it comes from. They want, for instance, someone to help them evaluate the recent blog post about religion that they read on CNN. They want someone who can take one look at a website they have been consulting and observe, “This is run by an evangelical group which explains why they evince beliefs X, Y, and Z.” They want someone who, when asked where the New Testament comes from, will tell them immediately that the earliest list of the 27 canonical books comes from a guy called Athanasius in the year 367 C.E. They want you for your expertise. This is often a challenge to remember, because the job market will try to generalize you. Most institutions are hiring you not to teach the one highly specialized course that fits perfectly with your dissertation topic, but also to teach introductory classes in a broader core humanities curriculum. These are crucially important courses to have, of course, but students and their parents are hoping for experts and for the immediacy of expert knowledge in the classroom.

We all acknowledge that humanities professors should instill oft-lauded “critical thinking” in our students. My sense from job interviews is that people on search committees hear this platitude all the time—“I encourage critical thinking in my classes”—and they’d rather hear what you’re really going to do in order to help students acquire these skills. This is certainly one of my goals when teaching students to read ancient texts in my courses. I encourage them to ask whose perspective the text is framed from, why such a text might be written, whom it benefits, etc. But students also need the specialized historical, sociological, political, and other data to make for the strongest analysis. Let me illustrate. Consider the Book of Daniel. When I encourage my students to “think critically” about such a text, we ask above all about its presentation: what argument is the text making? Whose interests are served by such a text? What is the purpose of such a text?In theory, students can do this kind of analysis in an intellectual vacuum, and it’s probably a valuable exercise to muse about such nebulous questions. But in reality, the best teachers are going to be those who provide them with the data to make solid conclusions with their critical thinking skills. In this case, the Book of Daniel can be made sense of by realizing that it was clearly written under the rule of Greek kings who succeeded Alexander the Great and notably not during the Babylonian Exile when it claims to have been penned. As many will know, you can come to this conclusion about the Book of Daniel if you have a strong background in ancient Near Eastern history. Armed with that, students are now in a position to contribute to the production and assessment of knowledge, not just “ask questions” à la Glenn Beck or some other talking head. This ensures that “critical thinking” doesn’t just operate in an ill-defined space but rather can be focused and honed in a constructive way. Upon reflection, it is thus our expertise that makes the classroom a disciplined place.

Expertise in our areas of study makes it so that when a job advertisement is posted for someone in, for instance, Christian Origins, any random person with reasonable analytical skills is not able to get an interview. Many people already have trouble imagining Religious Studies scholars as specialists—as evidenced by some of my colleagues who have served on search committees and have been the recipients of applications by interested lay people who think they would like to take a stab at teaching a religion course. So, while “critical thinking” is a great skill for us to have and for us to impart to our students, it is not an end in and of itself. It is a skill set that we cultivate and apply to our area of expertise—which, for most of us, requires historical background, critical theory, language study, and the like.

But our expertise in content should not dominate the classroom, which brings me to my second realization about early career teaching: students are not always bringing the technical skills to our classes that we might have hoped—through no fault of their own. We thus have to pick up the slack in many of our courses, even though we are theoretically only responsible for covering a certain content area. One of the best tactics that I’ve incorporated into my courses this year are narrowly focused assignments to help develop certain technical writing skills. That is, I structure my courses to build in skills, not just content. For instance, in my Ancient Christian Gospels course, I’ve set assigned four days to do writing workshops. The students range from freshmen to seniors; some are great at writing, while some still need work. I’ve decided that I can sacrifice a few days of content to focus on such tasks as how to summarize ancient texts, how to use ancient texts for an argument, and how to compare ancient texts with respect to a wider analytical theme. These routine skills that I and others in my field take for granted are completely foreign for some students, and I think it’s important to take the time to explain how to approach such tasks in the most basic way. For those familiar with it, it’s old hat and amounts to an easy A. For those unfamiliar, it might be one of the only focused times to develop such skills in their college experience.

Arguably, the most important thing I’ve learned is that the ethos of the college or university that you’re teaching in determines what you can do in the classroom, and this is mostly out of your control. For instance, I encountered some exceptionally bright students at the University of Toronto, yet they were among ~85,000 other undergraduates who found their ways into Religious Studies courses. I’d have about 40 students in each class, and those who showed up were routinely prepared and interested. I didn’t have an attendance policy, because my students are adults who are juggling work, other courses, sometimes families—and their Religious Studies course might not be their top priority. That’s fine. But it means that I couldn’t count on having all 40 people at each class, which determined how I covered the material and engaged with students. Now at Rhodes College (a private, residential liberal arts college), the ethos is very different. My courses are capped at 18 students. I can count on almost all students attending classes regularly and being prepared (and when they’re absent, they frequently send detailed and apologetic emails explaining their absence). Group work—which I rarely did before coming to Rhodes—is always productive in the classroom. One campus climate is not necessarily better than the other. There’s something to be said for an in-depth lecture that’s chock full of information and given by a specialist at a research-intensive university, but there’s also value in smaller, face-to-face, organic exploration of the material. Some of the best advice for folks on the job market is thus to really understand the differences among various institutions to which they apply and know how to adapt teaching styles appropriately.

Finally, what I’ve also discovered is that my students are really interesting young people, especially when they want to be at college and they are truly excited to learn (as opposed to being present to get this or that credential to get a good job one day). They do cool stuff and have innovative ideas—whether they know it or not. This has encouraged me to have a more dynamic relationship with my students. Instead of having a rigid sense of all the material that I have to cover every semester, I tweak my classes based on how students—whose opinions I greatly respect—react. I ask them which topics have made the most (or the least) sense to them and what sorts of assessments they find the most useful. Granted, I don’t let them run the show, but because they are, on the whole, dedicated and insightful people, their feedback goes a long way in helping me develop my courses and be a more effective teacher.

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