Preparing grad students to teach (Guest post by Tim O’Keefe)




Tim O’Keefe is Professor and Director of Graduate Studies at Georgia State University’s Department of Philosophy.

Graduate students do a lot of the teaching at their universities, and for those who go on to work in academia, teaching is a substantial and important—for many, the most substantial and important—part of their jobs. But by and large, philosophy programs do little to prepare their graduate students to teach. My own experience was the “sink or swim” model, with a lot more sinking than swimming, and my impression is that that model is still widespread. Although I hope that I’m wrong and things have improved, a 2016 study concludes that, on the whole, “the discipline of philosophy requires no, and offers little, teacher training for graduate students.” (Here is that article, and a version that isn’t paywalled.)

The terminal M.A. program in Georgia State University’s Department of Philosophy is unusual in two respects. Almost all of our students are responsible for teaching their own courses in their second year, with most teaching Critical Thinking, but a fair number teaching Intro to Philosophy or Intro to Ethics. (This past Fall semester, we had 37 sections of Critical Thinking taught by our graduate students, and 10 sections of Introduction to Philosophy or Introduction to Ethics.) And with so much of our teaching done by graduate students in just their second year of graduate school, we’ve developed an extensive teacher training program, because we owe it both to our graduate students and to the undergraduates they’re responsible for.

In “Preparing Graduate Students to Teach: One Model,” George Rainbolt and Sandy Dwyer describe Georgia State’s program. (The article starts on page 4 of the linked APA newsletter.) We don’t claim to have the best way to help graduate students learn to teach, but we’ve developed something that has worked well for us. The article isn’t long, but let me summarize it here.

The centerpiece of our program is a three course sequence. In their first year, all students take a letter-graded, 3 credit hour class to prepare them to teach. For 2 hours a week, they sit in on a section of Critical Thinking, and they take all of the exams, to make sure they know the material they’re going to teach. (Critical Thinking is a heavily standardized “course in a box,” to help make things easier for our grad students and to improve the quality of the course. Intro to Philosophy and Intro to Ethics offer more flexibility, but we have some sample syllabi for students to draw on as far as the course organization and major assignments, so they’re not starting from scratch, plus an extensive library of public domain or fair use pdfs organized by topic that they can use when deciding their assignments. We ask them to use exclusively such pdfs, so that our undergraduates don’t have to buy any textbooks.) For the 3rd hour they meet to discuss the course content and various pedagogical issues, such as time management, minimizing plagiarism, and implementing Title IX. Since every first-year student takes this class together, it’s also a good cohort-building exercise.

When they’re teaching their own classes, there are 2 more courses they take. The first one, which they take when they first teach, involves weekly meetings to talk about the administrative aspects of teaching, and it gives instructors the opportunity to talk with one another about how things are going and any challenges they’re facing. The second one, which they take later on, helps students develop a teaching portfolio, teaching statement, and other teaching documents.

We have a lecturer, a “Coordinator of Graduate Teaching,” whose main job it is to run all of this. (For many years Sandy Dwyer did this job, and since Sandy’s retirement it’s Heather Phillips.) I can’t imagine how we’d be able to do what we do without this significant level of faculty support, but it’s easily worth it. One nice side benefit to the position is that the CGT gets to know all of the graduate students and to talk to them about issues of professionalization, their anxieties and joys regarding the classroom, and the like. And so, the CGT ends up becoming something of an informal liaison between the graduate students and the rest of the faculty, and the CGT has her finger on the pulse of the graduate students, hearing what’s going on with their morale and mindset.

Having all of our grad students teach in their second year has allowed us to fund all of our grad students–albeit at a lower level than we’d like–because we took the teaching budget that used to go to adjuncts and moved it over to fund grad students. And while the teaching load is much higher than we’d like, we’ve done what we can to make it manageable for our students, and by and large they find the experience of teaching their own classes rewarding.

Anyway, please see the article for more details. If people feel like commenting, I’d like to hear people give their own thoughts on our model and how it compares to what they experienced as graduate students and what they do at their own departments, if they have a graduate program.

Originally appeared on The Philosophers’ Cocoon Read More