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Just keep in mind that grad seminars are substantially easier to teach. (Though I think it's normal to be intimidated by them.)

Grad students do the readings. They have questions about the readings. They can be called upon to give well-researched and interesting presentations. Every single one of them is passionate about the discipline. And they don't "test" you the way some undergrads will. Think about it--you were a graduate student, right? How often did you walk into a class thinking, "This guy probably doesn't know what he's talking about, and I'm going to prove it"? Wasn't that almost the opposite of the way you felt? Even if you're a very young prof and just starting out--to them, just in virtue of having a real job as a philosopher, you've arrived, you're the real deal. You're what they dream of being. If you seem a little less experienced, that just makes them identify with you more.

Finally, grad students are (for better or for worse) very insecure. When an undergrad doesn't understand something, they're likely to blame you for being unclear. When a grad student doesn't understand something, they almost always (again, for better or for worse) blame themselves for not being smart enough to get it.


I agree with Marcus about the topic (and with Ash about grad seminars being easier to teach - as long as you pick a topic squarely in your research).

Have the graduate students write regular, short (1-2 page) papers that are due every week on which you give feedback but aren't otherwise graded (think of them as "pass fail"). It gives them a low stakes assignment and ensures that they've not only done the readings but thought critically about some part of them. (Tell them "Find one thing in the week's upcoming reading to assess critically.")

I've found that doing something like this improves the quality of discussion. Even graduate students get busy (with other classes, with their work as teaching assistants) and aren't always as well prepared if they don't have to do anything but read in a given week. It also gives you a ton of feedback each week to give you an idea of what they're getting. You can even have them due the day before your seminar meets to have time to look them over before hand.

If there isn't enough graduate student discussion you can have people present these short papers (though I also tend to have them do a separate, more formal presentation at some point).

Have them write and present a short draft of their term paper on the last regular class day. (Tell them to present the "core argument" in case you won't otherwise have enough time). Then everyone can give them feedback and they're inclined to do a good job anyway, since they know the other students will see/hear their papers. You can also assign another student as an "official commentator".

Other things to think about: if you're reading some contemporary philosopher (especially if its someone you know), think about asking them to "Skype in" and answer student questions, etc.

My approach is to get the students as active as possible. This is good for them, but it is also good for you in that it cuts down on your preparation time. You don't have to have polished lectures the way you might for large undergraduate courses.

There's an old job interview joke "When asked by an R1 what you'd like to teach a graduate seminar on, other than the topic of your dissertation, the response is "what makes you think I'd want to teach on the topic of my dissertation? I'm sick of it".
My advice: Resist the temptation to branch out into some new area that you're fascinated by but not quite an expert in. If, after a couple of years, your tenure case looks really strong (or after tenure), then that's a time to think about doing something that would be more work, and may only pay off (in terms of research) in the long run.

New facutly

Congrats on the job, Lauren!! And exciting about the grad seminar. I also just finished my first grad seminar last semester and was nervous as well. I think the first strategy is wise (that's what I did) since it can be a lot to settle into a new job. It can be nice not to have to prep a new course. I think the second strategy can be nice once you feel like you've got your feet a bit more on the ground.

Also, fwiw, I wish I would have a) asked other faculty in the department for their grad seminar syllabi and b) met with a couple of faculty to find out more what the grad students in our department are like. I found myself wildly underprepared, not in the material (thankfully), but in how to navigate our particular graduate student culture and grad student expectations.

Good luck!


This is all really helpful. Thanks for the advice! And, FWIW, my new job isn't an R1, despite having a grad program, so both teaching and research are important (and I am supposed to be putting in the same percentage of effort on each, at least according to the tenure expectations). I also will have had one year of full-time teaching under my belt, so I know how much work it can be, although I will have fewer courses each semester to teach at my new job. It's a good reminder to prioritize getting research out, though--even though the amount mentioned to me seems reasonable given the other demands, it would certainly help to feel well on my way early on.

New facutly

Hey Lauren,

One more thing, since it sounds like you are at an institution similar to mine:

I was told course evals don't matter a whole lot in the first year. In fact, it can be good to have "mediocre" evals in the beginning with better evals in later years to show "improvement and growth."

It would, of course, be worth checking in with trusted folks in your department about such advice. Wanted to mention it because it definitely helped me keep calm at many points in the semester ;)

And it turned out I did get mediocre evals (I was crushed when I received them. The lowest ever in my 8 years of teaching). However, the chair and other faculty were nonplussed. They were happy to tell a story about the course: "first semester, different teaching methods than students typically see in the department, mixed students (from different MA programs), etc." As long as it gets better each semester, it'll be fine in time for tenure, I was told. I share this because while I think it's worth preparing as best you can, I also think it's important to be kind to oneself when things don't go as smoothly we tend to hope.

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