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Getting Started: A Pair of Books for New Teachers

by Erika Dreifus, Ph.D.

It’s natural for beginning teachers to seek advice—where else?—in books. Peter Filene’s Joy of Teaching: A Practical Guide for New College Instructors, and James M. Lang’s Life on the Tenure Track: Lessons from the First Year provide two recent additions to the how-to literature for new instructors. Both Filene, professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Lang, assistant professor of English at Assumption College, are evidently familiar with the scholarship on pedagogy. Ken Bain, director of the New York University Center for Teaching Excellence, offers the foreword to Filene’s volume; early on we learn that Bain was once Lang’s boss at Northwestern’s Searle Center for Teaching Excellence. You’ll also find annotated resources for further reading in both books. In short, both The Joy of Teaching and Life on the Tenure Track will teach new instructors about their jobs. But they’re very different books.

As its subtitle suggests, Filene’s book is a manual, divided in three parts. It offers many useful nuts-and-bolts pointers for newbies, especially in the middle section, which focuses on “Practices.” If you’ve never designed a syllabus, for example, you’ll want to spend some time with Chapter 4. And the chapter on “Broadening the Learning Environment” provides some very good suggestions for tried-and-true “active learning” methods.

At the same time, The Joy of Teaching is based on certain repeated premises, and if you are uncomfortable with them you may, at times, become uncomfortable with the book, too. For Filene, “When you teach, you are engaging in a relationship with your students” (original emphasis), and “Teaching is only as successful as the learning it produces.” He’s right, of course, to point out that “Excellent teaching is not the same as excellent scholarship.” And if you don’t want to engage with students, you really don’t have any business being in the classroom with them in the first place.

But why does it seem that mastery of one’s academic specialty—let alone one’s students’ mastery of any academic material—ranks so very low in the qualities that define good teaching? This book is apt to make any graduate student in the arts or sciences think s/he has made a terrible mistake. Why have I spent so much time reading novels or working in the lab or mastering the latest research methods and databases, s/he might think, when I should have been taking psychology classes? Because one’s central purpose certainly appears to be understanding students—all of them—and the ways they learn. “In addition to campus culture, academic preparation, mental models, and learning styles, you need to be aware of your students’ stage of cognitive development,” (original emphasis) Filene tells the new, joyful college instructor.

To his credit, Filene recognizes that he may go overboard. But despite stating at the outset that one’s goal in teaching “is not to satisfy consumers’ wishes or to find the lowest common denominator,” he spends so much time focusing on those “consumers” that even he realizes you may be wondering what’s going on: “After so much attention to gauging students’ attitudes and abilities, you may be clucking, ‘Standards! What about standards!’ That is, you may think that my approach advocates satisfying every student at the price of diluting quality and difficulty.” His reassurance is the not totally reassuring statement that his approach actually helps you “maintain high standards by enabling students to reach them. I’m not addressing the content of your course. I’m addressing the process by which you teach them to grasp the content.”

Yet style matters. Undeniably. I’m quite convinced that Filene and Lang are pedagogically on a very similar page. Both, for instance, praise interactive forms of learning, and Lang cites his extensive experiences in the Searle Center as helping to cement his commitment to such approaches. But early in the year his book covers, when he finds himself anxious and overwhelmed by the challenges of trying to run an “interactive classroom,” he is stopped from caving in and “falling into lecture mode” less because of his commitment to cater to each student’s learning style/preference than because “I am a terrible lecturer. For reasons that have never been clear to me, I cannot lecture effectively about literature. A lecture from me about postwar British fiction could put to sleep a coffeehouse full of amphetamine addicts.” Later, after reading his first semester’s evaluations, Lang makes some resolutions for the spring: “First, stick to my strengths. Even when I think I am failing, most students still appreciate the fact that I am talking to them, not at them, and that I want to hear what they have to say. Falling into lecture mode would have made my semester much easier, but it wouldn’t have been me.”

(Is “me” such a terrible word if you’re the teacher? Must we really remake ourselves to fit our students’ images, experiences, abilities, and interests? Haven’t we advanced any further, haven’t we acquired any authority by virtue of our additional education, scholarship, and training? And is it really possible to meet every student’s “mental models,” “learning styles,” and “stages of cognitive development,” anyway?)
Lang’s is certainly a more personal book. While it isn’t written as a manual, you can indeed learn from Lang’s experiences. His “lessons,” though individual, hold wide relevance. From his year-long chronicle you’ll learn quite a bit about negotiating the early stages of a teaching career. You’ll learn how to handle the politics of department meetings, how to deal with the obstacles life can throw at you (like your own chronic illness; you’ll even find out how to have your classes covered if you, like Lang, must be hospitalized during your first winter on the job), how to set realistic expectations for your own writing and research, and yes, how to teach. And frankly, it all seems a lot more joyful on his pages (even with the trials, tribulations, and challenges he includes).

Lang is a wonderfully engaging writer (you may have read his columns in the Chronicle of Higher Education) and he’s obviously deeply committed to the craft of teaching and the craft of writing. New instructors, especially in the humanities, may simply also be likely to identify with Lang, who introduces the book with an account of his trip to MLA in December 1996 as he was completing his dissertation, and other resonant, recent details.

Although strikingly similar in some ways, Filene and Lang have approached their books with different purposes, and not surprisingly, different methods. Depending on your own attitudes about teaching (and writing) one may leave you more “joyful” about the enterprise you’re embarking on than the other. In the end, however, both provide helpful insights for new instructors.

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