A few weeks ago, in writing a story about the Preparing Future Faculty program, I heard about changes in graduate student training and how those changes are affecting today's postdocs and new faculty. The message from people at all levels in the academic hierarchy was clear: Leaving graduate students--and hence postdocs and new faculty--unprepared to teach is like leaving them stranded in the desert without water. They may find a way to survive it, but who'd want to put anyone else through a trial like that unless it was absolutely necessary?

Traditionally, earning a doctorate has meant learning how to carry out a research program, a large enough task in itself. Learning how to teach was (and often still is ...) something you picked up in your spare time; something--like tuning up your own car--that would be nice to know how to do but that is not really necessary. And yet, junior faculty--with good reason--are increasingly being judged on their aptitude as teachers, not only as researchers.

So, ever interested in smoothing our readers' chosen career paths, Next Wave's Career Development Center (CDC) is launching--with this article--a series on the art of teaching, a series in which we hope to provide advice and encouragement to those preparing to teach.

Great Teachers

As I thought about how to approach this elephant of a subject, my mind meandered back to great teachers I have known--there were many I could recall because I have been fortunate in having teachers in all areas from physics to poetry who, almost physically it seemed, infected me with their enthusiasm--and I asked myself: Why did I find them inspiring? In every case, by the time I had left their classrooms, I knew that whatever they were doing, I wanted to do it, too.

And then it hit me--the teachers who had turned me on were the ones who were having a heck of a good time doing what they were doing. In fact, it was abundantly clear that they LOVED what they were doing, whether talking about Neils Bohr or Robert Browning. They loved their work--the work of teaching me. In fact, for the enthused teachers--those en theos, Greek for "inspired by a god"--you had to practically kick them off stage at the end of the class period. Much like the legendary long concerts of Bruce Springsteen or Ornette Coleman, the show ended only when someone turned on the house lights to signal that the people running the venue wanted to clean up and go home.

Well, it may not be possible for everyone to learn to love teaching quite as much as these stellar specimens do. But we hope in this series to at least provide some tools that will help all of us to become better teachers. So, here is a tentative plan, a draft syllabus so to speak, for the CDC's series on teaching:

  • Session 1: Reading the Audience: Assessing what to say and how to say it

  • Session 2: Helping Hands: Using visual aids

  • Session 3: Pop the Quiz: When and how to evaluate learning

  • Session 4: Grades, Anyone? The pros and cons of grading

  • Session 5: Knock, Knock: Office hours and contested grades

  • Session 6: Help Desk: When and where to get advice

But, as always, we'd love to hear your ideas and suggestions, so we hope you'll let us know if there are other topics we should cover. ... Meanwhile, please stay tuned to this site for our series rollout.