Daniel Knorr is a PhD Candidate in the Department of History at the University of Chicago. This fall, he is teaching a course on pre-modern Chinese history at the University of Illinois at Chicago as a visiting lecturer. You can follow him on Twitter @dknorrhistorian.
Many students nearing the end of their dissertation will explore areas of professional life beyond research and writing, including teaching their own classes, either at their home institutions or elsewhere. Part-time lecturing offers invaluable experience and provides supplementary income, but it also takes a lot of time at a point in life when time is in short supply. This seems like a hardy introduction to the rough-and-tumble relationship between research and teaching graduate students often hear about. But is there something more to be learned about the research-teaching relationship beyond that there are only so many hours in a day?
Like many graduate students, I started dissertation research with grand dreams about all the primary and secondary source materials I would finally have time to read now that I was free of my preliminary requirements. I was sure that with several years – years! – to work on my dissertation, I could easily work through all the classic texts, recent releases, and everything in-between that didn’t make it on to my orals lists. Likewise, preparing a survey class was exciting, because I knew it would force me to revisit and expand corners of my knowledge unrelated to dissertation writing. But time for both types of reading has been in shorter supply than I hoped. Starting with my dissertation research and now with teaching-focused reading too, I’ve found it useful to keep one list of all the books and articles I want to read, organized by topic, and another list that ranks which readings are the most pressing. This way, I’ve always got clear marching orders about what to read next, a mechanism for keeping track of all the books I hope to read later, and a platform for adjusting my priorities when necessary.
Writing my dissertation and teaching a self-designed course for the first time have also forced me into making hard decisions about what my audience really needs to read or hear. In neither case is it productive to pile everything in or cut everything out. Compelling anecdotes and sources help keep readers’ and students’ attention, and deploying them effectively is vital to fashioning arguments and narratives. But, as different as dissertation committees and undergraduates are, neither wants to read everything I’ve got.
Saying ‘goodbye’ to treasured tidbits that don’t advance an argument or narrative can be heartbreaking. A colleague once passed on some advice for dealing with this writing problem: put your anecdote, source, or theoretical diversion in a footnote…and then delete the footnote. The teaching version of this is a recommended reading list. If this list has no place on your syllabus, then make it…and delete it, or at least cut-paste it into another document. However, if your class includes a research assignment, then you might want to keep that list in the syllabus as a way to help students start exploring sources beyond the ones you’ve discussed in class. The joy of seeing a student choose your treasured source outweighs the pain of demoting it from “required reading” status, I assure you.
Of course, recognizing what is really useful is much easier with feedback from others. People often say that dissertation writing is a lonely process. In fact, I have found that having time to present my work and receive feedback from a much wider audience than earlier in grad school is one of the joys of writing a dissertation. This takes a little gumption: submitting to conferences, enlisting peers to critique your work, and hitting the send button on those emails to committee members, preferably with a chapter draft attached. It also requires pragmatic forethought: introducing yourself to future co-panelists, attending conferences to learn what scholars are working on now (not the book that came out last year), and experimenting with presenting in different forums and working with different faculty members to see where you get the most useful feedback.
This might seem like less of a problem with teaching, which is an inherently social enterprise. However, teaching “by yourself,” as opposed to being a TA who has weekly meetings with the instructor and other TA’s, can be a little isolating, albeit tremendously exciting. Here, too, it helps to take initiative to seek out advice, even for mundane things, like a refresher on how to use the copier.
Even more important is establishing clear communication lines with students. Just like you wouldn’t want the first feedback on your dissertation to be at the defense, don’t wait until the final exam to find out if your teaching is effective. I use scaffolded assignments with low-stakes early steps that let me evaluate both students’ progress and how effectively I am communicating course material and expectations before it is too late for either me or my students to improve.
Like committee members who have their own timelines for reading drafts and responding to emails, students respond differently to different forms of communication and assessment techniques. In-class discussion provides insight into how some students are doing, but it’s often the students who already feel most comfortable who speak up in class. As with the dissertation, the most helpful feedback often comes from people who are less comfortable and familiar with the material. Especially in larger classes, then, it’s important to incorporate activities that give you feedback from different classroom constituencies. For example, I use short ungraded essays and polls to ask students to reflect on what parts of the course they are finding challenging.
These strategies have all helped me write and teach effectively, but there will always be room for improvement. Understanding that my dissertation is not the end of my contribution to scholarship in my field, but the beginning has been profoundly liberating. I already have a running list of research priorities for revising the dissertation and ideas for future projects that will allow me to explore the themes that drive my research from new angles. This iterative quality of research applies to teaching and classroom learning as well. I’m proud of the syllabus I’ve put together, but I’m not satisfied. I keep a teaching journal to record my classroom experiences and an annotated copy of the syllabus for future reference. I wish my students could see how I will teach this course differently in the future because of their questions and insights. Remembering that this is the beginning of my teaching career and that my students’ learning does not stop when they leave my classroom has helped me focus on the ways I can best teach them now given our other responsibilities and limited time together.
Teaching part-time as an adjunct has given me a small taste of how life as a full-time professor will be very different from grad school. It’s encouraging, though, to realize that some of the challenges I’ll face aren’t entirely new. As we think about how the skills PhD’s develop can apply to careers outside the academy, it’s also worthwhile to revisit how the relationship between different aspects of academic careers, like research and teaching, can be constructive, not just competitive.
What lessons have you learned in writing your dissertation? Have they spilled into your teaching? Let us know about them in the comments.