Teaching as a Grad Student: Philosophy of Science

Posted on January 25, 2017 by

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Thanks to Aaron for starting this series. There are particular challenges that grad students might face as instructors, some of which I imagine are exclusive to grad students, whereas others could probably be generalized to new professors on the track. And perhaps in my case, grad students, new professors on the track, and maybe even those with tenure who all also happen to be women, though of course I cannot speak on behalf of them all.  I only share my personal experience of this important step that likely all grad students at the doctoral level must follow through with, and I suspect it launches us into the reality of what it takes to have a career in academia.

I have taught two courses in the last year and a half, one of which concerned evidence in science and the other that included a general introductory survey of topics in philosophy of science.  I had smaller numbers in terms of students compared to Aaron.  My evidence in science course was very small as it was scheduled during the Spring term as a 6 week condensed course.  The general philosophy of science course was a second year course, which was capped at 50, but the 9am time slot likely had something to do with a lower enrollment.  I know I certainly avoided early morning classes as an undergrad. Strangely, and perhaps in betrayal to my former undergraduate self, I rather enjoyed the earlier time bestowed upon me due to my lower seniority ranking in decisions that go into who gets which time slot. I felt as though I was part of the work force again and it was nice to have the rest of my day open for dissertating, lecture prep, and job marketing.

While I think many of us as grad students envision lecturing in front of a classroom the size of Aaron’s class (i.e. upwards of 100), there is a value in the smaller numbers. I was able to get to know each of my students, to work closely with them to improve their writing and analytic skills, and to engage them in lively discussion with one another. Perhaps these opportunities are still possible to some extent in larger courses, but I can see how smaller numbers facilitate a certain level of collegiality and comfort in the classroom.

I was told at a particular juncture before teaching my first spring-scheduled condensed course, which was my first course ever, the following: Although condensed courses are a lot of work and will essentially take over your entire life for 6 weeks, since teaching your very first course  (ever) in any term will take over your entire life, it’s better that it be for the 6 weeks, rather than the full 13 weeks. Moreover, teaching two 3-hour sessions per week will make the shorter intervals of lectures in regular terms feel as easy-breezy as a summer day.  I found this all to be true. The next course I taught during the regular fall term at 50min intervals felt fairly easy to manage in conjunction with the rest of my life.

Finally, here’s my experience teaching as a female grad student.  I also happen to be, relatively speaking, young or at least appear to my students as closer to them in age. As you might imagine, young female instructors can face particular challenges. I’ve had discussions with other male grad students concerning how their students seem to view them and react to them generally. I also had a professor report to me that once she hit the age of forty she found that how students perceived her changed.  Therefore, I’m confident in making the following claim. I had to work very hard to gain the respect of students from certain demographics, particularly any advanced and/or mature students and especially if they happened to be male regardless of their age.  That work ranged from my demeanor, to how I dressed, and to anything else that might help me to project an authoritative identity in that setting all in addition to making sure that I really knew my stuff with no exceptions or room for error. Over time as the courses moved forward, I could see that I successfully achieved that respect, but I have no doubt that I was challenged both inside and outside the classroom, which concerned both grades and the ideas presented, in a way that wasn’t necessarily mindful of the fact that I have been studying philosophy for over a decade.

There is, however, an upside.  I was fortunate to see the young women in my classroom really excel in discussion and during their questions after class.  I have noticed that after class, I tend to be approached by them to further discuss the content we addressed that day.  They seem to feel that I am approachable and I have received comments from these intelligent women (at various stages in their degrees) about how wonderful it is to see someone like me doing this sort of thing in a role model sense.  I also work to include a fair gender representation in my reading lists, which I think helps these women to see themselves in the work they are doing for my courses.  That kind of feedback and response is incredibly rewarding and it makes the extra steps I take to project myself as an instructor with authority all worthwhile.

It is through this process of teaching as a grad student that found I truly enjoy teaching. I value the interactions with students, as well as the opportunity and privilege to both witness and facilitate their intellectual growth for the time that they are in my classroom. This suggests that I will also enjoy the supervision and committee work involved in guiding graduate students through writing their theses.  My supervisor has played an integral and positive role in how I envision that process to be.  As such, this teaching experience has been important in rounding out all aspects of professorship that one should expect in following through the academic job stream in terms of teaching in addition to research and service.  Teaching as a grad student has reinforced that despite the tough competition and roller coaster ride that is the job market, I really do want to be a professor in every sense of the term.

-Alison