From TF to Course Head

For the last meeting of their year-long Teaching Colloquium and Pedagogy Practicum, third-year graduate students in the Music Department looked ahead to the next step in their professional development: teaching their own courses. Departmental Teaching Fellow Meredith Schweig assembled a panel of recent Music PhDs to share what they’ve learned as they transition from serving as a TF to stepping into the role of course head for the first time. Rather than documenting every point made during the two-hour session, I thought I’d post a list of the questions that stimulated discussion. Feel free to weigh in!

  1. What are some differences between teaching at Harvard and teaching elsewhere?
  2. Now that you’ve been a course head, what do you wish you had known prior to making the transition?
  3. How does preparation differ for seminars versus big lecture classes?
  4. How does your pedagogical mission change when you go from being a TF to a course head?
  5. Assuming you have teaching assistants, how do you coordinate them and delegate responsibility?
  6. How has your research informed your teaching? And vice versa?
  7. How do you teach what you don’t know? [This one deserves a brief answer: Read Teaching What You Don’t Know, by Therese Huston.]
  8. Is it a good idea to seek out adjunct work at other schools while you’re still a graduate student? If so, how does one find adjunct positions?
  9. On the job market, how do you convince other schools that you can teach outside of Harvard?
  10. In job applications, how were you asked to demonstrate teaching ability?

A few general recommendations came out of the session:

  • If you find work as an adjunct, ask faculty in the department to watch you teach. You’ll get valuable feedback, and you’ll have the chance to ask for a letter of recommendation that you can include in future job applications.
  • If you teach a large lecture course and don’t have the luxury of teaching assistants, you’ll have to combine information delivery with skill-building and “meta,” ways-of-knowing reflection. In other words, you’ll have to combine aspects of section and traditional lectures.
  • You might not ever teach your research, but doing research while you teach is nonetheless invaluable: it reminds you what it’s like not to know things. Confronted with a substantial knowledge gap, you’re more likely to empathize with your students who are likely experiencing something similar in your course.

As thought-provoking and wide-ranging as this session was, there are undoubtedly further questions (and answers!) worth sharing. For all the TFs out there, what questions do you have about making the transition from TF to course head? For those who have already made the leap to the next stage of your career, what do you wish you had known, and what are some of the most important things you’ve learned?

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