Teaching Matters: An excerpt from Aeron Haynie and Stephanie Spong’s new guide for graduate students

In a book written directly for graduate students that includes graduate student voices and experiences, Aeron Haynie and Stephanie Spong establish why good teaching matters and offer a guide to helping instructors-in-training create inclusive and welcoming classrooms. We’re pleased to share an excerpt from Teaching Matters, new in our series Teaching and Learning in Higher Education.

Just as it’s tempting to teach the way you were taught, your graduate professors may be preparing you for the research jobs they have, jobs that don’t necessarily emphasize teaching. If they advise you to place research first, they are giving you the strategies that worked well for them. However, most graduate students will not follow that path. According to the Digest of Educational Statistics, less than one-third of those instructors who have secured full-time positions work at research universities. Many fields in the humanities, such as history, are facing record low numbers of tenure track positions and fewer than 20% of those positions are at R1 institutions. Whereas it may be your goal to become a professor at a research university, most full-time academic positions are ones that value sound teaching—in different ways and with different corresponding research expectations. For example, positions at select small liberal arts colleges expect active research agendas, good teaching, and student advisement and mentoring. Regional comprehensives are similar but may allow some latitude in where and what one publishes. Community colleges have heavy teaching loads and don’t require publications, though some community college teachers publish, nonetheless.

Research universities, too, are becoming increasingly concerned with undergraduate retention and graduation rates, which are significantly influenced by the quality of undergraduate teaching. The mode of your teaching may also be quite different than your graduate professors have experienced. Even before the 2020–2021 COVID-19 health crisis, colleges and universities were very interested in growing ranks of online faculty who could develop flexible programs to increase enrollment without incurring the additional cost of expanding physical classroom spaces. However the current global health crisis resolves, online teaching will remain an increasingly important part of higher education. Teaching may also be where you find the greatest professional satisfaction. In a survey of more than 1,000 tenured and nontenured faculty across institutional types, the aspect of the job that garnered the most satisfied responses was “teaching students” at 91% with a close second in “mentoring students or junior faculty” at 87%; “conducting research” came in at only 68%.

There is good reason to take satisfaction in teaching: few careers allow you to spend a significant part of your day introducing others to a subject that you love. Your ability to communicate your passion for your subject may change the direction of your students’ careers, their lives, and their understanding of the world. Graduate students often teach introductory courses that determine an undergraduate student’s future success in college. Some studies suggest that undergraduates may even be more likely to adopt a major when their initial coursework is led by a graduate student rather than a faculty member. Although you can’t take sole responsibility for a student’s success or failure, you want to know that you’ve done what you can to design your course and teach in a way that allows every student a chance for success. If you are teaching non- majors as part of a general education requirement, wouldn’t you like them to at least have a basic understanding and appreciation of your discipline? After all, even if these students don’t become majors, they will be voters, neighbors, and members of our communities.

The stakes are high for students attempting college in this historical moment. One in three students will not graduate in six years, and even fewer graduate in four. College students now pay the highest costs for their educations and are generally in the most precarious financial circumstances. There is a growing body of research that suggests students’ early academic success provides momentum for graduation. None of this argues that front-door courses need to be made easier—since such a shift would not strengthen students’ later success in college—but it does mean that we owe students our best efforts. We are not exaggerating when we say that you may have a larger impact than you may believe. Since the 1980s, there has been a consensus that the relationship between students and their instructors has an astonishing impact on student motivation and engagement. As institutions have become more interested in how higher education improves the living conditions of citizens, we’ve seen an even richer portrait of the impact individual instructors can make. A survey of more than 30,000 college graduates, conducted by the Gallup organization and Purdue University, found that when it comes to a college degree translating to “a good life,” the experiences college students have matter much more than where they went to college—and this holds true across public, private, small, and large institutions. “If graduates had a professor who cared about them as a person, made them excited about learning, and encouraged them to pursue their dreams, their odds of being engaged at work more than doubled, as did their odds of thriving in their well-being.” The dark side of these results is that only 14% of graduates strongly agreed that they had those experiences.

We can all relate to the need to be recognized or seen, and we know that small gestures from someone else may have a large impact on us personally. This is especially true when you are new to college. When Stephanie was a first-semester freshman, one of her professors gave two grades on every paper: one for ideas and one for writing. Although Stephanie was a beginning writer at the college level, having her professor engage sincerely with her ideas made her feel recognized and gave her a sense of the potential that could come with more practice on her writing. When Aeron began her first week of college, a professor remembered her name from their brief chat at registration. This simple act helped Aeron feel like she had a place in the class and at the university. There are countless small moments where our attention can make students feel seen, valued, and encouraged.

Read more in Teaching Matters: A Guide for Graduate Students, available from West Virginia University Press.

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