October 24, 2011 – 7:13pm By Afshan Jafar
Those of us who have been, or are, in graduate school have come across this mantra: publish or perish. What is important about this phrase is not only the unrelenting pressure it puts on graduate students and early career faculty to publish, but the unspoken lack of emphasis it places on teaching. We go through graduate programs learning how to do research, but even now very few programs actively teach us how to teach or even encourage us to teach. Or so it seems to me, as I plow through piles of applications for a job in my department. I remember being a graduate student when the message to publish was seared into my brain. Where was the parallel message for teaching?
Things have changed. A little. The lack of teaching experience seems like a significant drawback given the current job market. Even in a robust job market, most graduates of research institutions don’t get hired at research-intensive institutions. But given that we are still far from a robust job market, and that a good majority of Ph.D.s are taking adjunct, part-time, visiting positions or taking on heavy teaching loads at community colleges or slightly less burdensome loads at small liberal arts colleges, teaching experience is even more important than before. And by teaching experience I don’t mean being a Teaching Assistant for a large lecture, I mean designing and teaching your own courses.
Becoming a TA in graduate school is certainly the easier choice: you don’t have to prepare the syllabus or the assignments, and you don’t have to prepare a lecture/presentation for every class. But being a TA can also be a very frustrating experience – you don’t get to have a say in how to teach the course and you still have to deal with disgruntled students. But perhaps most importantly, it doesn’t amount to much when you apply for a job (unless you are only applying to research intensive institutions). Having been privy to the inner-workings of a couple of job searches (at small liberal arts colleges), I can tell you that evidence of good teaching makes the difference between a top candidate and a candidate who is not a good fit for that particular institution. Of course, publishing is still very important. But if your graduate school advisors and mentors have not encouraged you to teach your own courses, take my word for it, go out and find teaching jobs before you apply for a full-time job, your teaching experience and evaluations are going to matter.
This means you need to teach and you need to teach well. So what should graduate students do? For one, start teaching early. Teaching can be quite an unpredictable experience. Although for a good part of my life, I had always heard that I was a natural teacher, when I taught my first college-level course at the age of 24(!) I was quite unsure in the classroom. How could I not be? Like most graduate students, I was teaching students who were not that much younger than me. Coupled with graduate students relative unfamiliarity with the discipline, it should be expected that teaching will seem, well, a bit un-natural. But the good news is that if you’re serious about being a better teacher and reflect consciously upon what works for you and doesn’t work for you in the classroom, you do improve significantly every time that you teach a class. So if you start teaching early, you will be able to provide evidence for excellence in teaching that so many job ads call for.
Second, if your graduate department is not able to accommodate your desire to teach your own courses, explore opportunities at your surrounding institutions. Smaller state schools, community colleges and even small liberal arts colleges need to hire adjuncts often. Let them know that you are available to teach, instead of waiting for them to contact you or your department.
But you’re a graduate student, you say. You are trying to figure out your comprehensive exams, your research, your dissertation, and your next article, do you really have time to develop and teach new courses? Yes. Yes, you do. After all, graduate school is supposed to prepare you for your life after a Ph.D., and unless you take the non-academic route, you’ll have to learn to make time for both teaching and research.
New London, Connecticut in the US
Afshan Jafar is a member of the editorial collective at University of Venus and an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Connecticut College. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.