Help with teaching, part 1: Intro

Many grad students find themselves responsible for a classroom without getting any any formal training in what to do there. Yes, there are teaching centers on every campus, but taking a class or classes in teaching can often be something you realize that you want (or need) to do too late — after the semester has already started, or after the registration period for these classes has ended. In this new series, we take you though your first class, from syllabus to lesson plans. Our focus is primarily on the North American academic context, since that’s what we know, but we’d welcome comments, suggestions, or additions/additional posts from experienced instructors working elsewhere!

Part 1 is fairly brief: a three-step list of things to do immediately when you find out that you’ll be teaching a class next term (or in two weeks, or two days – and yes, the latter happens). First, of course, you should take a moment to be happy. It’s great that you’re being entrusted with a class! (And then you’ll probably be terrified. It’s totally normal.) Since basically every job in classics is a teaching job, by which I mean you’ll be expected to teach at least one course per term, this is a good step in your professional development. Your first time teaching will always be your hardest, and even with help and hard work, you might be awful (I definitely was). Luckily, you probably won’t do any lasting damage to your class, and you can get better. Make mistakes while you’re in grad school so that you can excel once you graduate!

But once you’re ready to address the practicalities, you should make sure that these steps are taken care of. The order isn’t really important, as long as you do them as soon as possible.

  • Clean up your social media. Do you have private Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or other social media accounts? (By ‘private‘, I mean non-professional; reflecting your personal life for  your friends and family, rather than reflecting your academic life for colleagues.) Now is the time to rigorously check those privacy settings and delete any photos, posts, or other information that you might not want your future students to see. Your students will Google you. If you don’t want them to know what you were doing last Friday, you need to make sure that your public sharing settings on Facebook, Google+, and other social media sites are off.

Obviously, Twitter is a more public medium. If you’re concerned, separate your account from your name by changing your bio, or scroll through recent tweets to make sure that they represent the character you want your students to see.

We don’t advocate pretending to be someone you’re not for the purposes of teaching. But if you’ve never thought about your internet footprint, now is the time. Try Googling yourself and see what shows up. Anything you don’t like? Take steps to get rid of it.

  • Make friends with your textbook reps. Many publishers offer free or reduced-cost textbooks to instructors who are teaching a new class. If you have substantial lead time (more than a month), reach out to major textbook publishers like Routledge, OUP, Pearson, Cambridge, or Bolchazy. Search their websites for texts that seem appealing and see if you can get an ‘Examination copy’ to review. If you can make personal contact with one of the sales representatives, even better: often they’ll do the work of finding related titles for you. But be careful: do not abuse this privilege. If you’re teaching Latin 1, don’t order a fancy Cambridge commentary because you want it for your personal research. That raises the price of books for everyone, and is generally just not very nice.

If you’re teaching on short notice or in a multi-section class with a departmental syllabus, this option might not apply to you. Any time you teach on short notice (less than two weeks for me; pick your own comfort level), you should see if there are previous versions of the course syllabus that you can use and adapt to fit your own teaching interests and style. If nothing else, you’ll get a sense of what the class typically covers. Also, make sure to take note of the textbook order deadline: that’s the date by which you need to let the bookstore know what book you’ll be using. If that’s passed, ask what book has been ordered for your class, and whether the department will provide a desk copy. (If not, publishers usually give them to instructors who have ordered their book.)

  • Ask for help! Especially from other students who recently taught for the first time. There are a lot of things that someone can forget to tell you (like not to use your personal printing allowance for course materials, or that it’s departmental policy to post the slides online). The longer you’ve been teaching, especially at the same institution, the more likely it is that you forget these details, because they’ve become second nature to you. People who have started more recently are more likely to remember the hiccups along the way.

As another form of help, make sure you’re prepared to teach the course. If you’re teaching myth and have never read Greek drama, now might be the time to speed your way through some Euripides. If you’re teaching Roman civ and haven’t studied the Republic, read through Livy – and some modern scholarship on him. You don’t have to be an expert! (We’ll come back to that later.) But you should try to fill in the gaps in your own knowledge as much as possible. Learning something new is one of the unsung joys of teaching.

In the next post, we’ll cover the nuts and bolts of making a syllabus. Until then, make sure that you have these basics covered; you’ll be too busy afterwards to get to them.


~J

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