What I Wish I’d Known about Faculty Life: Teaching the Curriculum, Etc.

This is the second post in Kevin Birth’s series, What I Wish I’d Known about Faculty Life. Previously: Departmental Politics.

HERR, mein Herz ist nicht hoffärtig, und meine Augen sind nicht stolz; ich wandle nicht in großen Dingen, die mir zu hoch sind. (Psalm 131, Martin Luther’s translation)

I like Luther’s translation—particularly the sound of “ich wandle nicht in großen Dingen.” Luther’s choice of “wandern” combined with the metaphor of “things too high for me” evokes an image of climbing a mountain that one is unable to climb. Sometimes, as teachers, we try to climb such mountains; sometimes, we try to get students to do so, as well.

The Introductory Course

Empty lecture hall

Not the response you want for your new course on your favorite topic

Chairs are poor, beleaguered people. This is never more apparent than when the chair shows up at lunch with a haggard look and pieces of paper in her hand.

On one particular occasion, the sheet of paper was an observation report of an adjunct professor in an introductory course. The observer had excoriated the adjunct for not teaching an introductory course, and not teaching the right subject. The adjunct, a newly minted Ph.D., had apparently decided to inflict high theory on freshmen, and the professor who observed this had not approved.

“Do you have the adjunct’s syllabus?” one of the lunchtime crowd asked, adding that “the adjunct might have been having a bad day.”

The chair nodded and disappeared to see if the departmental secretary had a syllabus on file. The chair reappeared a moment later.

I took a look. The first thing I noticed was that the assigned books represented a narrow sliver of the field and were typical of a graduate-level course. I then perused the topics covered by the course. Again, it was a very narrow, somewhat advanced representation of the field. I recall the initial several weeks covered:

  • Theory
  • Applications of Theory
  • Theoretical Approaches to Stuff
  • The Stuff of Theory
  • Theory, Theory and more Theory
  • Theories I like

The reading assignments were no better. They included a book called All Theory and No Examples and another book called Turgid Prose that Sounds Profound.

I relayed my observations to the chair, and she said that she would talk to the instructor.

A couple of days later, the chair came back to the lunch table more haggard than before. Apparently, the adjunct had taken umbrage at the observation report AND the comments on his syllabus. In fact, after a tirade directed at the chair about how the full-time faculty were backwards, racist pigs who had no appreciation for the cutting edge of the field, the adjunct resigned, leaving the chair to try to find a replacement in the middle of a semester.

Learning More Faster

I remember when I was in graduate school, the best advice I was given was from a friend who had recently secured a tenure-track position. He said, “Kevin, it’s a big world out there, and most departments do not teach the sort of anthropology you’ve learned, and many places have people who are critical of it. You’ll need to learn more faster after becoming a professor than you ever have had to do in graduate school.

He was right.

So how do you learn? The vast majority of colleges expect junior faculty to teach introductory courses and required courses for the major. Even when one is on the job market, using the Internet, it is fairly easy to identify what these courses are, and even to obtain sample syllabi.

Once hired, one can often get many sample syllabi, as more and more institutions require that departments keep them on file for assessment purposes. Studying sample syllabi is one of the best ways to learn the preferences of a department for a particular course, and adopting at least some of the same books not only demonstrates being a team player to the department, but it also gives one something in common to discuss with faculty who have taught those courses previously.

Developing New Courses

New faculty are also expected to develop new courses. These tend to come in three types: electives for the major, seminars for freshmen, or senior-level synthesis/capstone courses. Here is another source of potential trouble. Sometimes one is tempted to develop courses that reflect specialized learning in graduate school rather than courses that anticipate what undergraduates may want to learn. Such specialized courses can have two bad consequences—under-enrollment (which looks bad) and frustrated students (which hurts the instructor’s reputation).

A few years ago, Gretchen, a new Ph.D., wanted to teach a course called “Transnationalism and the Hegemonic Doxa in the Northeast Corner of Southeast Asia.” The Curriculum Committee looked at the title and told Gretchen that the course appeared to be too specialized, so she adjusted the title to “Transnationalism and Hegemonic Embodiment in Southeast Asia” but kept the description of the course focused on the northeast corner of Southeast Asia. The Curriculum Committee looked at the course and told Gretchen that the course was still too specialized. Gretchen came back a third time with a proposal for “Transnationalism and Hegemony: A Doxic Perspective” with a vague course description that claimed the course would take a “regional perspective” on issues of “politico-phenomenological concern.” By this time, the Curriculum Committee was simply tired, and approved the course.

A week before the beginning of the semester, someone from the Star Chamber (as we call the administration) called the chair: “We need to cancel that transnational whatchmacallit toxic course.”

“But Gretchen needs the course for her workload,” the chair whimpered.

“The enrollments are too low—fire an adjunct and give Gretchen the adjunct’s course,” the voice from the Chamber fired back.

When the chair broke the news to Gretchen, she was devastated. Her dissertation had focused on transationalism and hegemony in the northeast corner of South Asia from a theoretical perspective that synthesized Bourdeiu, Foucault, de Certeau, Lao Tzu, Queer Theory, and the discursive insights of the character “Kenny” from the television show South Park (the last, she deemed a major theoretical intervention). She was tired of teaching introductory courses, and this course was her opportunity to teach something she really knew. To make matters worse, the adjunct being fired was a struggling graduate student that she had occasionally chatted with after colloquia at a nearby university.

Gretchen was also a bit jealous of her peer, Cynthia, who had developed a course called “Movies, Social Media, and How to Get Rich” for a freshman seminar. The course had filled almost immediately, and Cynthia had been given a small grant to develop the course and to give her a release course. In general, she liked Cynthia—they had a similar theoretical interest in the intersection of Lao Tzu and South Park. In fact, that interest was at the core of Cynthia’s course, just as it had been with Gretchen’s canceled course. But Cynthia reaped the reward, and Gretchen got a grad student fired.

There is no magic formula for developing a successful new course. Often, it is a matter of trying to figure out ways to make our specialties interesting to people who are not specialists, rather than to repeat the language we learned to speak in graduate school. One’s colleagues are valuable for this, because as my friend told me in graduate school, they come from that big world that often thinks differently from one’s own graduate training.

Photo credit: Sixth Life via Flickr

Kevin Birth

Having determined in high school that he was a mediocre fiddle-player and tobacco chewer, Kevin Birth left Harrisburg, Pennsylvania to pursue anthropology. In graduate school at the University of California at San Diego, He trained in social and psychological anthropology, and conducted ethnographic field research in rural Trinidad. In 1993, he earned his Ph.D., left California in an old Mazda with his pregnant wife, and sought his fortune in a tenure-track position in the Department of Anthropology at Queens College, where he had been hired on the basis of wearing purple pants during the interview. Since then, he has published two books based on his research in Trinidad: Any Time is Trinidad Time (1999, University Press of Florida), and Bacchanalian Sentiments (2008, Duke University Press). He has also published numerous articles, most of them on the topic of cultural conceptions and cognition of time. He is now a full professor, and the purple pants no longer fit.

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  • Madelaine Hron commented on September 14, 2011 Reply

    Thanks for this Kevin. Very true. One of the great temptations of academia is pride… by showcasing your smarts etc., not only in the classroom, but in research, dept meetings etc.
    When I teach I like to remember that in the Bible everything is pretty clearly and simply laid out, and folks still have trouble getting it… Just as Jesus was aware that his listeners were farmers and fishermen, it would behoove us profs to remember the worldview and passions of the 250 freshman staring at us…

  • Kevin commented on September 14, 2011 Reply

    You are absolutely right, Madelaine! Although Jesus had the advantage of always knowing what He was talking about and knowing the hearts and minds of those to whom he was speaking. When He spoke with authority, it was because He had authority and knowledge; when I speak with authority, it’s often because I’m bluffing.

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