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Dear Graduate Scholar: Teaching, Containing It and Excelling at It

by Lofton L. Durham, PhD

If you’re at Pitt, then that means you’re probably teaching in order to earn your assistantship and tuition waiver.  And, even though teaching while working on a PhD can be an enormous challenge, it is a duty best viewed as a chance to learn and improve your skills. For wherever you go after graduate school – a full or part-time teaching position, a tenure-track faculty position, or an alt-ac career – the ability to manage demanding tasks and competing priorities is a perennially important task.

I offer the following suggestions in the spirit of helping you grapple with the demands of research and teaching, in the hope that you will all, swiftly and inexorably, move towards graduation and the next stages of your lives.

Get help early. This means not only looking at sample syllabi and attending whatever teaching prep orientation that’s available before classes start, but it also means inviting trusted peers and mentors into your classroom to observe you in the first couple of weeks after classes start. The key is: let everyone know what you’re teaching, ask their advice, and invite them to watch you teach. Information and feedback are absolutely critical to make sure you avoid common mistakes, as well as take advantage of the wisdom at your institution. Start out on the right foot by making a habit of asking for advice about teaching. Take Faculty Development as soon as you can, and implement the lessons in your classes.

Wall off teaching-related work time. The biggest issue will be teach-creep: you may be so intoxicated with the thrill of being in the classroom, or so intimidated by the amount of work involved, that you will throw yourself into teaching as if it were your full-time job. THIS IS A MISTAKE. You have a set number of hours to work: calculate when you will work those hours, work them, and keep your teaching related efforts from bleeding over into other times. You need that other time for your own classwork and your research. Teaching is always urgent – but your research will never be, unless you assign it that importance.

Be realistic about YOUR workload and design your own classes accordingly. The real reason you’re at Pitt is to earn your graduate degree. So you need to focus on scheduling time to accomplish that task. Just like you schedule your classes, schedule your work on those classes. Make a work schedule – like any job – that enables you to spend the time you need on your seminars and your research projects. That, coupled with scheduled time to teach and prepare for teaching, keeps you focused on the real goal for your time in school.

It sounds easy, right? The difficulty arises when you enthusiastically cram your syllabus with readings, sophisticated writing assignments, and complex projects – things you have to grade – and thus find yourself up every night poring over undergraduate student writing.

Repeat after me: it is not my job to make my students into outstanding actors, writers, or human beings. It just isn’t!

Do not take on that kind of responsibility. Instead, figure out how to craft a class that minimizes grading while maximizing impact. Here are some specific suggestions:

  • Develop a rubric with your students. Put it in the ELearning software, and grade using the computer – no comments allowed, just let the rubric do the talking.
  • Create assignments that can be done in class, so that the grading may also be done in class: presentations, scene showings, graded group work, etc. 
  • Build in frequent, low-stakes, easy-to-grade assessments in lieu of larger, high-stakes projects or papers.

Instead of requiring a conventional paper, develop more specific prompts or exercises. 

  • Instead of assigning a generic play analysis paper, ask a question such as, “How do the given circumstances of the play impact the kinds of action that take place in it?” 
  • Instead of requiring a full history research paper, why not try an annotated bibliography? Or a revised Wikipedia article? 
  • Use the course objectives as a tool to zero in on very specific activities that can help students. Break the objectives down, and accomplish them in small pieces – this will help them, and it will definitely help you.

This is just a sampling of the ways to manage your workload while ensuring positive student outcomes. After all, the goal, really, is to make sure the students get valuable experience in the class without creating a lot of work for you that doesn’t help them reach the objectives of that class.

Cultivate humility. It’s a privilege to be teaching any class, particularly on the way to getting your degree. Yet it’s all too easy to fall into seeing students and teachers on opposite sides of a knowledge divide. But that is counterproductive. Remember you are a student too, and your students, while they might not be as committed as you are to the subject matter, deserve respect, consideration, and a clear sense from you that you are their teacher rather than their pal.

As you move through the semester, why not ask students how is it going? A quick three-question assessment can teach you a lot about student experience: 1) what’s the most effective thing about this class for your learning; 2) what’s the least effective thing; and 3) do you have any suggestions to improve the class? In addition to the specific responses that can help you assess the efficacy of certain assignments, surveying your classes in this way shows that you care about their opinions and delivers the impression that you see them as full partners in their own education. 

Good luck!

Lofton L. Durham graduated in 2009 with a PhD in Theatre and Performance Studies from the University of Pittsburgh. He is currently an Associate Professor of Theatre History at Western Michigan University, and serves as a Faculty Fellow at the Medieval Institute, on the Board of the University Center for the Humanities, and as the Assistant Editor of the journal Comparative Drama. He won the 2014 Excellence in Teaching Award from WMU’s College of Fine Arts.

Series Editor: Esther J. Terry