Advice for New Faculty: surviving as both teacher and scholar

A while ago I gave a talk to new faculty at the Mathematical Association of America's MathFest about how to survive as both teacher and scholar. Several people asked for a copy of the information I shared, so I am posting a summary of what was in my slides here in hope that it will be useful to some of you.

Why try to balance teaching and Scholarship?

  • Both are required for promotion.
  • Teaching and scholarship are both important to higher education.
  • Each one helps the other:
    • Teaching invigorates scholarship:
      • Teaching helps me see things in new ways.
      • Teaching reminds me of the excitement I felt when I first learned math.
      • Teaching helps me clarify what is most important.
    • Scholarship invigorates teaching:
      • I can't teach students to discover if I am not doing it myself.
      • Research reminds me what it is like to struggle with a hard problem.
      • Research helps me clarify what is most important.

General Advice

Find out NOW exactly what your institution expects for tenure decisions.

Every institution has different expectations, and you can't meet expectations unless you know what they want.
  • Teaching always matters.
  • How do you document that your teaching is good enough?
  • How much scholarship is required?
  • What type of scholarship is required?
  • What type of service is required?

Stop worrying about what people think of you and just do your job.

Fear of looking stupid is a major obstruction to success.
  • Don't be afraid to talk to "experts."
  • Don't be afraid to ask colleagues and chair for advice.
  • Publishing and funding always involve rejections. Just revise and resubmit.
  • Good teaching and good research talks focus on student or audience understanding--not on what your students or audience think of you.
  • Don't worry about who gets the most credit in your collaborations.

Seek feedback and expect correction.

  • You aren't yet an expert on everything--and that is OK.
  • Referee reports are a great opportunity to learn from experts
  • Expect criticism. Even non-constructive criticism can be helpful.
  • Always remember that many colleagues and students
    • Do not express themselves politely.
    • Take their frustrations out on people around them.
    • Despite all that, still have lots to teach you.

Don't worry about final products--focus on good practice.

It is destructive to worry too much about whether you have enough papers or whether your teaching is good enough. Instead, focus on learning to do the right things appropriately, efficiently, and comfortably.

Remember the child's seed in a cup:

  • If you dig it up to see if it is growing, it will die.
  • If you water it more than normal because it doesn't seem to be growing, it will drown.
  • You have to do the right things (e.g., provide water and sun), in the right amounts (not too much, not to little), without stopping, but also without rushing. If you do this and are patient, it will grow. As my music teacher loved to say, "Never hurry, never stop".

Good Practice in Teaching

  • Save time in each class period for discussion/interaction.
  • Limit preparation to no more than 2 hours per hour of lecture. This is hard for many, and you may think it will hurt your teaching, but there is significant empirical evidence that the 2 hour rule improves both teaching and scholarship.
  • Instead of spending more time in lecture preparation, read about and talk to others about how to improve teaching.
  • Network at least 3 hours per week.
  • Solicit student feedback and adjust accordingly.
  • Integrate your scholarship into your teaching.
  • Get to know your students.

Good Practice in Scholarship

  • Write/research daily for at least 30 minutes.
  • Collaborate whenever possible.
  • Network at least 3 hours per week.
  • Always speak when you travel.
  • Give at least 2 talks off campus each year.
  • Submit a grant proposal every year (unless already funded).
  • Write poorly worded first drafts and edit later. It is much easier to edit than to write, so make writing as easy as possible by just dumping your ideas onto the page without regard for the quality of your writing. After it is written, edit mercilessly, but not until you have the ideas written down.

Use time wisely--most people spend too much time on the wrong things.

  • Always think about Return On Investment.
  • Teaching and scholarship BOTH have dangerous time traps
  • Email is a huge time sink and will expand to fill all the time you allocate for it and more. Never read email until you have finished your daily research and class prep.

Teaching Traps

I have seen faculty fail to make tenure for each of the following.
  • Over-preparing lectures. See the research on why this not only eats time but also makes for bad teaching
  • Typing course notes. This is essentially the same as writing a textbook. No pre-tenure faculty member should be writing textbooks or typing course notes or making fancy graphics for class--just choose a better text for your course next time. Even after tenure, if you want to write these, be sure that your notes or text will really be so much better than what is out there that lots of people will buy it. If not, don't do it.
  • Using technology in the classroom. Technology is sometimes useful, but often not worth the cost in time.
    • It often takes lots of time to prepare a technology presentation. Be sure that the pedagogical benfit to the students is worth the time spent.
    • It takes class time to get the computer booted and the projector running. Be sure that the contribution from technology is worth the lost class time.
    • Technology is unreliable and may not work when needed, so you must always have a backup plan. Are you really sure the technological presentation will be that much better than the backup plan?
  • Major teaching experiments. Minor experiments can really improve your teaching and can keep things interesting for both you and your students. But major experiments are risky and time consuming. Wait to do them until you have tenure, and even then, approach them with due respect and caution.
  • Extended one-on-one time with students. It is nice to spend lots of time with students, and it is often hard to send them away so you can do your research. However, lots of one-on-one time is not necessarily better for students:
    • They need, eventually, to learn to solve problems on their own.
    • If they ask exactly the same question and have exactly the same problems as nine other students, they could all have their questions answered once, together, instead of answering them ten separate times.
    • Often students don't even know what to ask nor what help they need. Watching other students ask their questions can help them clarify and understand things they would not have in a one-on-one setting. There is evidence in music pedagogy, for example, that group instruction is actually more effective than one-on-one lessons, at least for learning basic skills.
    To ensure that your office hours don't extend all day, schedule them at a time that will have a clearly defined, non-negotiable end.

Scholarship Traps

  • Over-reviewing literature. Of course you need to know what is going on in your field, but you don't have to be an expert in every aspect of your field in order to write good papers.
  • Perfectionism:
    • Shooting too high. As I was advised: "Go for base hits instead of home runs." If you are only willing to publish great work, you never will publish any work. Besides, some of my best papers were ones that started as a little side project that I thought was barely worth publishing.
    • Over-polishing manuscripts. People who have to have every theorem or paper in its perfect, most general and most beautiful form never get anything published. As many people have told me, manuscripts are never finished--just abandoned.
    • Trying to make the first draft great. (See above about why to write bad first drafts.)

Final tip

Set up external support for your goals--don't depend on your internal self-discipline alone:
  • Establish a routine. Always do the thing you have most dificulty with (usually scholarship) first. Do email last.
  • Have a time and place to work without interruption. If you are too soft-hearted to turn away students at your door during your research time, then go to the library or another place you can work without interruption during research time.
  • Set non-negotiable limits on course preparation, office hours, and email. Schedule them just before class, before important meetings, or before something else that will force you to stop when the time is up.
  • Report your progress to a partner, a colleague, or a mentor--you will be much more likely to keep your resolutions if you have to tell someone else when you failed.

Copyright © 2009. Tyler Jarvis. All Rights Reserved.