Our books

Become a Fan

« Kinds of departmental and university politics? | Main | Tips for tenure-track parents? »



Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.


This is sort of repeating Marcus's #2, but anyway: I (and almost everyone I know) made my first class way too difficult--readings that were too long and too difficult, overly demanding assignments, not enough repetition. I think we just get used to what grad students are capable of and have a harder time remembering what we were expected to do as undergraduates (at least, that's what happened to me). I would encourage you to make the class as easy as you can. If you have a professor you can run your ideas by, that helps too, since they've been teaching longer, but other grad students might have the same high expectations for undergrad teaching.

James Lee

Use backwards course design to think carefully about the elements contained in your syllabus, including readings, assessments, and course schedule. These elements of your syllabus must be pedagogically justified and not simply there because that's how everyone else in your department does it. What is typical is that many course instructors give plenty of thought to the material that they want to cover but almost zero thought to the assessments that they use in the course. The link below gives a suitable summary of backwards course design.



One really good piece of advice I've gotten: make sure that each and every students actively talks about philosophy in the very first meeting. The first meeting sets the expectations for what classes are going to be like -- whether students are going to listen to a lecture, or whether this is a class that is about them talking. It's difficult to turn that around later in the semester, and just saying that you expect them to talk won't help either. After getting that advice I have taken up the habit of giving them a 5 minute discussion question to debate with their neighbor (where they are assigned a position to argue for or against) at the beginning of the first class, and I think this has really transformed the way students approach class time.

A more generic piece of advice: check whether your university has any staff that is supposed to support teaching. Some universities have people that are specifically there to help with course design, and they might be willing to give you feedback on your syllabus etc.

Mark Herman

Your job is to *provide* a good class, not *invent* a good class. Borrow very liberally from other teachers.


I'd underscore one piece of advice: communicate with your students why you are doing what you are doing. (Why are you reading this reading; assigning homework in this way; using this method of assessment; whatever.) In my experience, communicating with your students encourages students to think of the class as a collaborative activity. It also discourages them from thinking about you as their employee who requires random things (a weird narrative you can sometimes get).

O, and have fun!

Mike Titelbaum

Don't set unrealistic expectations for yourself. The first time I teach any course it's a mess. The second time I teach it, I work on fixing all the things I did wrong the first time. Only on the third time I teach a course does it begin to look anything like what I'd want.
Which is to say that if it's not going well on the first time through, cut yourself some slack!


A bit of advice i got early in and had worked well for me: err on the side of stricter policies (for late assignments, etc.) then be lenient in applying them. The policy can be an important fallback in tricky situations especially when you’re new to teaching, but when a student is in a tough situation (and I’d say don’t police their excuses, just give them the benefit of the doubt, at least for starters) they will appreciate your leniency. A line that has helped me when a policy needs to be enforced: “out of fairness to other students, [I can’t waive the attendance requirement, or whatever]…”


My two cents:

Every teacher has his or her own unique way of running a class. You'll find yours. You'll adopt lots of different things from lots of different teachers you have had in the past, many of whom were very good teachers, though all in different ways. You'll put your own imprint on these things you adopt, making them yours. You'll be nervous at first, and there will be difficulties (e.g., grade complaints, bad class days here and there where getting the discussion going is like pulling teeth, and some negative comments on course evaluations from students or even some negative comments from professors in your grad program who observe your teaching). Just keep going, even when it's rough, and you'll be fine. If you're a PhD student in philosophy, you are more than capable of becoming a good teacher in philosophy. It just takes time and not giving up. Just keep teaching and keep tweaking things until you find an equilibrium that you are comfortable with and that seems to work well in terms of (a) keeping discussions going in class and (b) getting students to learn how to write better and argue better (both in writing and in speech).

I know lots of people will disagree with me on this issue, but I would steer clear of reading about new pedagogy stuff. It's not that stuff written in this area is false. It's that it can be distracting if you are trying to settle into a good equilibrium as a teacher. You already know what it is to be a good teacher because you've been a student learning from so many good teachers for a long time. Thinking about those teachers -- and how to adapt what they did well to your own personality and style -- should be your guide. Reading about new pedagogy ideas should not be your guide (again, it can be distracting).

Last point: If nerves hit you hard at the start, just keep going. It will be awkward, but if you keep going, the nerves will get better. I can remember seeing twenty sets of eyes staring back at me the first time I ever led a discussion section as a TA, and I couldn't handle it. My hands started visibly shaking, and my mind was racing (and not in a good way). But just go through it, and it will get better over time.

And good luck!

Daniel Weltman

I hate to give sort of contradictory advice that adds more to one's plate, because teaching for the first time is already enough work (and because, as you'll see below, my advice is kind of empty), but I would sort of disagree with B saying you can safely ignore "new pedagogy stuff" because you've learned from good teachers for a while. This is probably true for some people but certainly false for others. You're in a PhD program. As an undergraduate you were likely far beyond where most (if not all) of your undergraduates will be. You cared more about philosophy than they will, you devoted more time to studying it than they will, you understood it faster than they well, etc. This means that what your professors did that worked for you may not be what will work for your students.

The benefit of the "new pedagogy stuff" is that it's focused on what will work for your students, rather than what will work for the sort of person who ends up getting a PhD in philosophy (a description which fits very few of your students, if any). That's not to say you need to read 40 articles or anything. In fact I got almost none of my knowledge of the new pedagogy stuff from articles, at least at first - it came from 1) TAing for a course taught by a fellow (more advanced) graduate student (Marta Halina!) who had learned about the new pedagogy stuff, and 2) enrolling in a semester long seminar at my university which taught us the new pedagogy stuff (the same course Marta had taken).

You can't do those two things, and it's hard to say more about what sorts of new pedagogy resources to check out without knowing where you are as a teacher, what the class is going to be like, what the students will be like, etc. So this is why my comment here is sort of unhelpful. But as someone whose teaching is (I suspect) leaps and bounds better than it otherwise would be due largely to the new pedagogy stuff, I would definitely dip your toe into it, even though this is just your first class. The sooner you start practicing with techniques like peer learning, the better you'll get at it, and the students in your class will certainly benefit from it.


I think all suggestions above are helpful, but it might be difficult to put all of them into practice as a first-time instructor. What I found helpful was to find a model class/instructor and to imitate the course design and their teaching style. You probably do not want to directly copy the whole class, but you can always use "what is already there" as a start.

When I taught my first class, I went to a professor whose teaching I really admired. I asked for suggestions, and the professor was super helpful. I found what worked and what did not later and slowly developed my own teaching style.

Bill Vanderburgh

This is reiterating some of the advice already given, but perhaps with a slightly different spin.

The major mistake I made when I taught my first course was that I over-prepared. I spent 6 hours in prep for every hour of lecture. Then I had these "golden" notes that I felt I had to deliver all of to my students. It was bad for all of us. So: Do less. If your contract says you work ten hours per week on your course (prep, delivery, grading), do that and no more. Good enough is good enough.

A useful way to promote engagement is to outline a philosophical problem (from the reading), pose a question, then do a think-pair-share activity. There are several advantages to this. The "think" phase (where students spend five minutes writing their answer) gives students an opportunity to practice thinking and writing. The "pair" phase gives them five or ten minutes to discuss with a neighbor, thereby practicing talking philosophy while refining their ideas and getting new perspectives. Both together help students who prefer more time to think or are a bit reluctant to speak up, since now they have had time to prepare an answer and test it in a low-stakes situation. The result is that during the "share" phase when you facilitate the group debriefing, you get a lot more participation, and a lot higher quality participation. It also reduces the problem of the loudest/quickest hand from dominating the conversation and letting the rest of the class think they don't need to do anything since "that guy" (yes, it is almost always a guy) will fill the airtime. And, a bonus: that's 20 minutes of class time you don't need to have material for.


If you’re teaching essay writing, it would be helpful to have an example of an excellent article to use. Something that is also not too long either for time’s sake. Then proceed to “dissect” the article using a second-order analysis of the structure of the argument and paper.

When I first read a philosophy article, it was extremely difficult for me to pinpoint the author’s argument. I didn’t know that the first part of the article was devoted to summarizing or providing background information. I mistakenly took *that* as the author’s actual argument.

Contrary to popular belief, many philosophers aren’t very good at organizing their papers and making their intentions straightforward. In the social and natural sciences they have something called “Literature Review” and “Discussion” section. It tells the reader what to expect. Even in some law articles, they at least have something called “Setting the Scene” or “The Scope of the Problem” section. A lot of philosophers are very bad at bracketing their thoughts in their articles. This can be difficult for first time students.


I totally agree with Daniel. One book I would recommend: Small Teaching, by James Lang. The tips are "small"--they don't require overhauling a whole course, and some of them would be pretty easy to implement midsemester if things aren't working--but they're a good way to compromise between keeping your workload minimal and integrating some "new pedagogy stuff."

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been saved. Comments are moderated and will not appear until approved by the author. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until the author has approved them.

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)

Job-market reporting thread

Current Job-Market Discussion Thread

Job ads crowdsourcing thread

Philosophers in Industry Directory