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Ask Professor Pedagogy: Finding Teaching Opportunities

Posted by on Friday, January 11, 2013 in Commentary.

Ask Professor Pedagogy is a twice monthly advice column written by Center for Teaching staff. One aspect of our mission is to cultivate dialogue about teaching and learning, so we welcome questions and concerns that arise in the classroom; particularly those from Vanderbilt faculty, students, and staff. If you have a question that you’d like Professor P to address, please send it to us.

Dear Professor Pedagogy,

I’m a graduate student in a department that offers very few opportunities for developing my teaching skills. Even though I’m currently serving as a Teaching Assistant, my duties only involve grading papers and holding weekly office hours. How can I gain additional teaching experience so that I’ll be better prepared for the job market?

Didactically Challenged


Dear D.C.,

I very much admire your desire to gain additional teaching experience while you are still a graduate student. This is a great time to take advantage of the resources your institution has to offer as you refine your skills in preparation for a faculty career. The good news is that you already have a wonderful opportunity – in the form of your weekly office hours – to practice your teaching. At its core, teaching is all about communicating ideas and enhancing student learning, both of which you can do in an office-hour format. In fact, office hours provide a great environment for teaching that is tailored to individual students’ needs, because they offer you the chance to spend focused, one-on-one time with them. The major challenge may be getting students to come, and knowing how to use that time wisely. For strategies specific to teaching in office hours, check out this Teaching Guide on the subject.

Now, if you’re still eager to find opportunities for teaching that involve getting up in front of a group of people, there are some other avenues for you to explore. Here are a few ideas that may already be available to you, but that you just haven’t thought of as opportunities for “teaching”:

  • Give a guest lecture:  Since you’re already serving as a Teaching Assistant for a course, this may be pretty easy to arrange. Perhaps your professor is going to be out of town at some point this semester; if so, ask him or her if you can lead the class that day. Or, ask if you can do a guest lecture on a day when the professor might like to have a little respite from teaching (the last day of class before a university break tends to be a popular choice!) Another idea is to volunteer to teach a particular topic that coincides closely with your research interests – in this case, you may actually know the subject better than your professor and be more qualified to teach it. The worst that can happen is that you’ll be turned down. If it turns out your professor doesn’t want to share the teaching spotlight with you, ask around in your department to find out if there are other faculty who are more open to having graduate students guest lecture in their classes. Chances are, there is someone out there who would be willing to have you visit his or her classroom, particularly if you can teach a topic in which you have some expertise. Further, you might consider venues outside of Vanderbilt – would your expertise on a given subject be informative for undergraduates in a program at another local university or community college? Be bold and send an email inquiring about it.
  • Lead a review session:  Depending on your department, leading review sessions may already be part of your regular TA duties. If not, ask your professor if you can offer one or two review sessions during the semester to help students prepare for upcoming exams. If you go this route, you’ll need to think through how you will structure the sessions, and how you want the students to prepare beforehand. Otherwise, students may come to the sessions with unrealistic expectations (like that you’re going to re-teach them everything they need to know for the exam) and be disappointed with what you offer them.
  • Make a presentation to your department:  Even though this option doesn’t involve teaching your regular students, it can still be a great chance to polish your presenting and facilitating skills. A departmental presentation could take a lot of different forms:  you could participate in a journal club and present the key findings of a scholarly article; you could present your own research to other graduate students and/or faculty; you could create a workshop for other Teaching Assistants in your subject area . . . the sky’s the limit! To get started with this option, see what your department already has in place and consider plugging into that. For instance, some departments already have a regular forum for graduate students to present their research. If your department doesn’t have anything like this, or the current offerings don’t meet your needs, consider starting something of your own and inviting others in the department to attend. (Of course, if your event is going to require the use of university space or resources, you may want to check with an administrator in your department first.)
  • Teach a course as an adjunct:  If you really want to get a lot of teaching experience under your belt, you may want to explore the possibility of teaching an adjunct course at a local college or university. The benefits of this approach are that you would get lots of experience in a relatively short period of time, and you would be paid to do so. The drawback is that teaching your own course can be extremely time-consuming. In addition to attending class, you’ll have to find time to prepare your lessons and grade your students’ work. So, before pursuing this option you’ll want to think it through carefully. Ask yourself:  Will taking on an adjunct position adversely affect your own research or other responsibilities? If so, maybe working as an adjunct isn’t for you.
  • Become involved in summer programs: There’s lots of learning going on at Vanderbilt during the summer months. For instance, the Programs for Talented Youth at Vanderbilt offer instructors the chance to design and carry out courses for students in grades K-12. The PTY often hires Teaching Assistants to assist with these courses. Find out more on their website or by contacting Jay Watson.  Alternately, you might find an opportunity to lead an enrichment session within the Vanderbilt Summer Science Academy (VSSA) which offers biomedical research opportunities to undergraduates who want to pursue a career in the biomedical sciences. Find out more on their website or by contacting Michelle Grundy.

So often, we think of “teaching experience” as limited to being the instructor of record for a course. But, as I hope you can see now, teaching comes in all shapes and sizes, and there are many different options you can pursue for getting more practice with a variety of teaching skills.

As a reminder – be sure to speak with your department (specifically your advisor or PI) about the ways you’re spending your time. Some grants have policies regarding “effort” (especially NIH/NRSA grants) that you may not be aware of, but your PI will.

Best of luck to you on your journey from “Didactically Challenged” to “Didactically Fulfilled!”

Professor P


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