Theses on Professionalization: Sarah Kleeb

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In this series with the Bulletin, we have asked 21 early career scholars to weigh in on Russell McCutcheon’s Theses on Professionalization, first published in 2007. In his 21 theses, McCutcheon offers advice to young scholars entering (or soon to enter) the job market, addressing the all-to-important (but often overlooked) question of professionalization. Each of the contributors in this series has been asked to comment on a single thesis, addressing its contemporary relevance, and how it relates to their own experience moving forward in the academic world. For other posts in this series, see here

by Sarah Lynn Kleeb

Thesis # 19Although it can be intellectually stimulating, developing new courses is time consuming. Depending on the needs of their Department, teaching multiple sections of the same course provides early career professors with fewer course preparations, helps them to quickly establish their area of expertise in the curriculum and among students, and allows them to gain teaching competencies far quicker, thereby enabling them to devote more time to their research and writing.

In the 19th Thesis on Professionalization, McCutcheon reminds us of the often substantial weight that comes with developing new courses term after term, and encourages teaching multiple sections of one course, in order to refine teaching skills while still leaving time for one’s own research and writing. Developing new courses is indeed time consuming, and doing so can potentially feel overwhelming, depending on how many courses one is developing at the same time; each course can easily become a substantial research project in and of itself. These multiple sections, however, are entirely dependent “on the needs of [the] Department,” and there, I fear, is the proverbial rub. Are multiple sections of religion courses even a thing anymore? Because I, for one, am not seeing much evidence of that. Only the obligatory 1st year “World Religions” course at my university had multiple sections – and by “multiple”, I mean two: one day section and one evening section, with one of these generally taught by regular faculty, the other by a sessional lecturer.

I can only speak from experience (having just defended in August), but perhaps my perplexity is due to the idiosyncrasies of my former home department, where ABD students are rarely hired to teach the same course twice (in the admittedly admirable interest of giving as many opportunities for development to as many students as possible). In such an environment, I never found myself in the position to teach multiple sections of a religion course, and only once was I able to teach the same course twice. Even then, it was at a year’s remove – it was our “Study of Religion” course (a method and theory primer for undergrads), for which they had trouble recruiting an instructor during a summer term. I’d taught the course the previous summer. That said, upon attaining a permanent position, or even a “stable” adjunct position (an oxymoron, perhaps), it may be possible to teach the same course within or across different terms, but it’s also worth considering how much time is actually saved in doing so.

First, though, some background: while I only had the opportunity to teach one of my religion courses twice, I also spent the last few years of my doctoral work teaching a general humanities course. It was an introductory survey course that functioned as an academic writing “boot camp” for 1st year students. This was a course that I just kind of fell into, and I was in the fortunate position of being hired to teach this course for multiple terms, over multiple years. In this role, I was able to teach two sections per year (one in the fall and one in the winter, on a semester model), but never multiple sections in the same term. While this meant that I didn’t have to build from the ground up every term, it also never saved as much time as I thought it would.

In my experience, very few courses can be run verbatim multiple times. Perhaps that is the case if one is teaching multiple sections during the same term, but, again, if anyone sees that actually happening with great frequency, please let me know. Even my twice-taught “Study of Religion” course underwent significant changes from one year to the next, despite the subject matter being essentially the same. Every course I teach is as much a learning experience for myself as it is for my students, and there are many reasons to tweak courses from term to term, year to year. Some ideas, approaches, or theories that I think will be really engaging for students end up flopping, and I’m often surprised by students’ enthusiasm regarding concepts that I fear will be too weighty or abstract for them. Each time either of those things happen, a revision is necessary. Of course, that’s not even taking into account the need to keep current with the scholarship I bring into the classroom, nor the need to re-work and re-structure readings and assignments each term to help curb plagiarism, particularly with the increasing access students have to purchasing work submitted in previous terms. None of this is to suggest that lectures, readings, and general content can never be recycled. When this is possible, it is undoubtedly a time-saver. But a one-size-fits-all approach to courses taught across multiple terms or years isn’t necessarily realistic. The recycling I’ve done has always been partial, at best.

While assembling the academic content of courses and lectures admittedly takes the most time, we shouldn’t disregard how much time is gobbled up by the basic ins and outs of course development: establishing course timelines, late policies, general assignment structures, methods of evaluation, and grading rubrics; creating generic and reusable blurbs regarding academic integrity, accessibility, lecture notes policies, and useful campus resources; constructing explanations of intended learning outcomes and general expectations for students in our courses, etc. While content may need to shift somewhat (or, sometimes, considerably) from term to term, these little things are often relative constants, and, particularly as early career scholars, developing a firm understanding these fundamentals of putting a course together will likely save time in the long run. These are foundations that are generally reusable, regardless of the content or approach of a course.

As such, I’d recommend honing general and widely-applicable course construction skills and refining your pedagogical approach, particularly while in the final years of graduate school or the first couple of years after graduation. Consider creating “stock” syllabi for 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th year courses – general frameworks with clear parameters that take into consideration the needs of these different groups of students (i.e., 1st year students will generally need more specific direction than 3rd or 4th year students), into which specific readings and topics can be inserted later. Take advantage of pedagogical development and instructional skills workshops on campus to learn “best practices” for such things. While the content of courses tends to be our primary focus – that, after all, is what gets our juices flowing and excitement levels elevated – having a consistent, comprehensive, and transparent set of policies in place will not only save you time, it will improve the learning environment for your students.

I would also recommend familiarizing yourself with the resources available to undergraduate students (e.g., writing centers, language resources, research librarians, etc.), and doing so as early as possible. Solidifying relationships with such departments can help take the pressure off some of the more tedious, but still time consuming, aspects of running a course. Resources available through campus writing centers, for example, can help keep us from feeling like we have to “reinvent the wheel” each term, as we assign our students essays and other writing assignments. Librarians are often happy to hold research skill development clinics for undergrads, allowing us to devote our attention to course content, rather than telling students over and over again what a “peer reviewed” source is, and why it matters. I always encourage students to take full advantage of all the campus resources available to them (and for which they’re paying, via their tuition, whether or not they use them), but am often surprised at how little we instructors and professors ourselves are encouraged to make use of these same resources in our classes, aside from simply telling students that they exist. While the applicability of such things may depend on the kinds of work you plan to assign in your courses, when they are relevant, they are invaluable, and they absolutely free up time that can be used in other ways. All those little emails about acceptable sources and essay formatting really add up, especially if you have hundreds of students per term, all with the same sets of questions.

So, while McCutcheon’s advice here isn’t necessarily unsound, the ideal and reality don’t always match up quite so tidily, in my experience. Recycled courses don’t require the same time commitment as newly-developed courses, but they still often require significant reworking (again, unless the “multiple sections” fall in the same term, which seems an increasingly distant possibility). Taking time early on to develop expertise in the fundamentals of course construction benefits your students by your knowledge of pedagogical best practices, it benefits campus programs by encouraging students to utilize them, and it benefits scholars by making course development second nature, which opens up time that can be used for research and writing.

Moreover, in an academic world that relies heavily on adjuncts and sessional lecturers, and in a context in which humanities disciplines face ever more cutbacks, McCutcheon’s advice might not be as widely applicable as it once was. As more scholars end up taking on sessional or adjunct positions in which they are at the mercy of the market, the hope of reducing one’s workload by teaching multiple sections of a course may not be realistic. As pessimistic or defeatist as this may sound, to fill and maintain the kinds of positions increasingly available to many scholars, we may just have to do more for less.

Sarah Lynn Kleeb received her PhD in August 2015, and is an on-the-market scholar currently teaching courses in humanities, academic writing, and religion and media at the University of Toronto’s Scarborough campus. Sarah’s doctoral thesis, Gustavo Gutiérrez’s Notion of “Liberation” and the Legacy of Marx’s “Ruthless Criticism”, critically examines connections between religious belief and (social, political, economic) dissent, particularly as manifest in Gustavo Gutiérrez’s liberation theology. Current research interests include the rise of Pope Francis, who frequently uses liberationist language and economic critique in interviews and encyclicals, yet who has long distanced himself from liberation theology.

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