Thursday, 16 April 2015

Post 47: Guest Post on Teaching from Garrett Richards!

Three weeks ago we had a lab meeting during which Garrett Richards was one of two guests, and we ran out of time to discuss his perspectives on transitioning into teaching, which I had been particularly interested in hearing about. Garrett is one of those wonderfully reflective people who produces excellent work all the time, because of his unending internal processes of introspection and thoughtfulness. Because of this, he's delightful to work with, and he follows up when he says he'll do something with/for you. He's currently in Saskatoon finishing writing his PhD and teaching sessionally.

Garrett generously emailed me after the meeting with these additional thoughts, which we didn't get to talk about during the lab meeting (it already went over time). So, from Garrett:

1) Obviously teaching is something to consider a little later in your graduate career. I don't know of many sessionals without a master's degree, and it seems to be a minimum requirement on any posting. Still, if you're interested in pursuing teaching, it's something to start thinking about even at the end of your master's, even if you won't teach for another few years. Some PhD programs, for instance, have a mandatory teaching component (e.g. after your classes and comprehensive exams you might spend one term teaching a course coordinated by your department) that might be attractive to you.

First apple tree blossoms I've found on campus! Love the splashes of pink through the white petals! 
2) Sessional teaching is super unreliable. In any given term, the courses you are able to teach (and want to teach) might not be available. At the University of Saskatchewan (UofS), one tricky thing about this is that ALL sessional opportunities get posted to the public, even if a department already suspects they will fill them with their regular sessional instructors. 

So you need to apply to a lot of them, but some are not even "real" postings. I didn't have that problem applying at UVic (not that I ended up teaching there), but it was a lot harder to find the postings to begin with. If the university where you end up doesn't have a convenient regular posting for all sessional positions like the UofS, email the department(s) you're interested in and ask how to be kept in the loop. Anyway, demand for completely new sessionals seems to be low, so don't plan on getting an appointment right away - apply for a few different terms and hopefully you'll stumble into a class that a new instructor has a chance at getting. Then you'll have some experience and connections, which might open up further opportunities.

3) Of course, if you manage to get a permanent appointment in some department (i.e. based on your research), the teaching doors may fly open, even if you don't have any teaching experience.

4) Teaching is a lot of work, and takes up a lot of mental space (especially if you're teaching in an area outside your research focus). Most graduate students will already be familiar with these challenges from TAing. Actually teaching a class is way more fun (i.e. you actually get to make decisions about what material to cover and what assignments to give) but quite a bit more work. I'm lucky to have a lot of public speaking experience, such that I don't have to write super-detailed notes for each lecture (I use my slides to guide me and just a few extra notes written on paper). 

And some latecomer cherry blossoms. The first started blooming in February, and now it's mid-April! Lovely!
I've heard a piece of advice that you shouldn't teach until you've drafted at least two chapters of your dissertation. Still, splitting your focus between teaching and writing is hard - I try to devote entire days to one or the other. I would expect to do 3-days-teaching and 2-days-writing each week for a big class, and the inverse for a small one (once you get into a rhythm). 2 new classes at once would probably take all your time, but I assume things get way easier when teaching a class a subsequent time.

5) Be proactive in asking questions to someone in the department. They may not plan on doing a lot of hand-holding, and you should feel free to do a lot independently, but there are some things you will need guidance with (just like when TAing). For my first appointment, I was a bit surprised at how little information I was given - I sent an email back with about 20 questions (e.g. Is there marking assistance? Where will my office space be? How much can I change from the existing syllabi? How do I access online parts of the course? Do I need to ask the bookstore to order textbooks for my students? et cetera). It's a bit tricky to balance guidance vs. independence - I overdid the independence a little bit in my first class and should have gotten someone to check over the mid-term I had developed before giving it to my class (i.e. it was too hard).

Thanks Garrett!! 

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