Recently there was a bit of a dust up over at Daily Nous about a guest post by Jason Brennan on productivity in publishing, with a response by David Enoch. Jason’s advice is actually pretty good, as far as it goes, and its better after he clarifies a few things in the comments on both posts (this is one of the few times I can remember learning something in blog comments, when the debate got more sophisticated as things went on).
However, as Jason notes, his advice is pretty restricted in scope, to grad students who want to publish a lot and are on track for jobs where publishing a lot is the most (only?) important thing. Most of us aren’t in that position, which means his advice is of somewhat limited value (I'll leave to one side the debate about whether we should want to be in that position, though you won't have to do much detective work to see what I think about that).
So, I thought I’d write a companion piece inspired by Jason’s post, about how to be productive in a teaching-centered position.
1. Make sure you have passion
a. Most professors are in teaching-heavy positions, not research-heavy
b. Teaching is the point of being an academic: publishing is how you get to keep the job.
c. You don’t need an academic position to research. If you care about publishing but not teaching, get an alt-ac job and write on the side. You may even spend less time on non-research work that way.
2. Balance all the things that are important
a. Schedule time for reading, for writing, for prepping, for grading. Keep to that schedule. And make sure you have over-flow time built in for when the scheduled time isn’t enough.
b. Prep enough. You don’t have to write out hour-long lectures or think of every possible question and its response and the response’s reply. But don’t phone it in either.
c. Never sacrifice teaching to get other things done. Students are paying a lot to be in your class. You’ve gotten a job that lots of other people would want. Don’t squander this responsibility/opportunity.
3. Answer email every day
a. Be a professional. If pretty much every other white-collar job can handle timely communication, you can too.
b. I like to deal with emails first thing in the morning, for 30 minutes or less. For me, it’s a way to start the day with something easy than nevertheless feels productive.
c. It’s often better to deal with small things as they come than to let them pile up.
4. Earn rewards, then take them
a. Self-care matters, mentally and physically.
b. Teaching itself should be rewarding. If you’re not sustained by the insightful question, or the student who comes to your office hours for help, or the student who finally gets the distinction, you might be in the wrong business.
5. Use rubrics, not comments
a. Students don’t know how to handle the kind of feedback that philosophers give each other. They’re likely to be overwhelmed, and then dejected. And giving comments takes a lot of time. Make a rubric, and give it to students in advance, so they know exactly what to do. That makes them more likely to actually do what you want, which means you spend less time on mistakes. And grading with rubrics is a lot faster. You can still leave the occasional comment on a criterion in the rubric, and you should give a summary comment at the end.
6. Use peer-grading, not comments
a. Use in-class feedback to help students know (i) what they’re supposed to learn, and (ii) if they’re learning it. The better you do this in class, the better the assignments will be, and the easier it will be to grade them.
b. When possible, have students grade one another’s assignments (I use daily quizzes where students only write their ID #s to preserve anonymity). It not only saves you time, it puts another teaching tool in the quiver.
7. Be able to explain yourself to your hairdresser in a way they’d find exciting
a. Yep. Jason’s right on this one. Try to skip the jargon as much as you can.
b. Conversely, make your hairdresser explain things to you. That is, rather than writing out a lecture, have the students explain things as much as possible. Better for them and better for you.
8. Don’t feel stuck with the course
a. If you’re bored with the reading, switch to a new, comparable assignment.
b. Don’t feel compelled to cover the same old stuff. There’s lot of good material out there.
c. Talk to colleagues about how they teach something. You might get inspired.
d. Underlying principle: Often we’re inefficient because we’re unmotivated. More excitement means less procrastination means less total time spent.
9. Keep future semesters in mind
a. If you don’t like a reading, make notes about how to either teach it differently or replace it.
b. Think about new classes you might pitch, or new takes on old courses.
c. If you have notes on how you might teach a class, it’ll save time in planning the course later.
10. Design courses for students, not philosophers
a. Just because philosophers care about something doesn’t mean students do or should. Or vice versa. (Of course sometimes cutting-edge philosophical work can be really interesting to students)
b. Make use of unconventional sources (blog posts, podcasts, interviews, etc). These are often shorter and simpler, so less prep.
c. Make 1-2 points per class. Don’t try to cover too much, which also means less prep.
11. Don’t take on a textbook that doesn’t set things up well
a. It’ll save you a lot of work and unhappiness over the long run to put together your own list of readings.
12. You don’t work best on the fly
a. A little planning goes a long way. You can often spend less time overall if you plan ahead rather than scramble to catch up.
13. Don’t see only nails just because you have a hammer
a. Don’t try to force every class to be about the topics you know/like.
b. Don’t assume that you have to treat class topics in your AoS like you would in your own work. It’s OK to simplify.
14. Teaching in grad school is easier because you have role models everywhere
a. Yeah, you don’t really know what you’re doing yet. But you’re still able to easily watch how lots of other people teach. Take advantage of it while you can.
b. And you can run through ideas with your peers. You can even organize a group to observe each other’s teaching.
15. Scantrons are a Catch-22
a. They’ll save you time on grading, but it takes more time to write well, and they’re less fun to teach to.
b. You can make a good short essay exam with 1-4 questions. For a scantron exam, you need at least 20. It’s a lot easier and faster to write 1-4 good short essay questions.
16. Read stuff other than philosophy
a. Jason’s right about this too. Think about how you can use non-philosophical material to help teach philosophy
17. Don’t teach like a grad student
a. You can do much better than picking a random textbook and teaching the chapters in order.
b. Not to mention, textbooks aren’t very inclusive.
18. Think through the narrative arc of your class
a. Why are you teaching what you’re teaching when you do? If you don’t see some kind of pattern or unity to the course, adjust it until there is one. It’ll help students see the big picture, and the connections between topics.
b. It’ll also help with planning. If Monday flows naturally into Wednesday into Friday, there’s less new ground to cover, and easier to review. Less prep that way.
19. Week 1 has to sell philosophy
a. You’re not just teaching, you’re representing the discipline. Show right away why it’s worth your students’ time to be there.
20. A good paper is an accepted paper, and an accepted paper is a good paper.
a. There is no perfect paper, and philosophers will find something wrong with anything. Don’t obsess over perfecting your research to the point that it interferes with your other work.
21. Universities hire teachers
a. The 2/2 research job is rare. The 4/4 job isn’t. Even though you need to publish for tenure for many teaching-heavy jobs, it’s still a teaching job.
b. Even jobs who prioritize research will, more often than not, want good teachers. You’ll have to say something about your teaching for just about any job. Better to be in a position to say something good. “I figured out how to spend as little time teaching as possible so I could publish more papers that people won’t read” is probably not the best answer.