Melanie Newport

Assistant Professor of History, Hartford campus at University of Connecticut

Teaching Tips for Graduate Students

Full woman pulling canal boat 2

Image: Woman pulling a canal boat, circa 1910

We all know that person — that superhuman Ph.D. candidate teaching for the first time. She spends hours crafting her lectures. She took a whole weekend to come up with the perfect learning activity. She gives meticulous comments on student assignments. “Teaching is my passion,” she tells you over coffee, “I certainly can’t spend less time on it.”

Except that she should.

For graduate students and A.B.D.s with teaching loads, managing your obligations as instructors can be the difference between finishing a dissertation or not, and feeling burnt out and exploited. I should know: I taught 17 courses while I worked on my Ph.D. Here is some hard-won knowledge for graduate students and A.B.D.’s who are struggle to balance their teaching and research.

Your research comes first. That’s what my adviser always says. Teaching during graduate school helped me to learn what that really means. Every semester I made a plan for progress on my dissertation that I tried to achieve. Some semesters, that meant getting up early to write so I could fulfill a page quota. If you are having a hard time balancing your priorities and obligations, designate a friend to be incredulous whenever you are thinking of saying “yes” to one more thing that detracts from your research and writing.

Schedule your teaching time. I was fortunate in that my university had an arbitrary formula: TAs should not work more than 20 hours a week. When the university rationalized that solo teaching two classes should only require 20 hours of my time — fine. Each class got 10 hours a week. Was that ideal? No. But I did learn that a perfectly fine lecture or discussion could be hammered in one or two hours instead of six, and that teaching preparation could be limited to the days I was actually in the classroom so that I still had time — and headspace — to work on my own projects on the other days.

I also made one-on-one interactions with students a priority. Getting to know my students — during office hours or in-class meetings on their research projects — helped me to learn that they often benefited more from our conversations than they did from me spending a few extra hours preparing for class or grading papers. It also helped me to understand what was, and wasn’t, working in my class, especially as I got to know more about my students and their experiences in the larger university. Word of advice: Avoid discussing grades or other time-consuming issues over email.

Make strategic choices about what, and where, you teach. If you can, be deliberate in choosing course topics and materials. Some suggestions:

  • If you are teaching a writing course where you choose the topic, it should be related to your dissertation. That will: (a) Allow you to keep up on reading for your field, and (b) give you experience in adapting your material for a wider audience.
  • If you’re teaching a survey course, make sure you’re devoting extra time to areas that you are most familiar with so you can reduce your preparation time.
  • Don’t put films on your syllabus — rather, save documentaries for flex days when you inevitably get sick or find you need extra time to finish a conference paper.
  • Reuse course materials. As you design a new course, find ways to adapt material you’ve already prepared for other classes. Grad school is not the time for your most innovative, labor-intensive syllabus.
  • Remember: You have to do the readings and grading for the work you assign. It often takes more time than you think it will. My best friend has adapted Chanel’s advice to take off one accessory before you leave the house: Take one thing off the syllabus before you give it to students. You’ll be glad you did.

Where to teach is just as important as what you teach. I once interviewed to adjunct at a small liberal-arts college that offered me a course I wanted experience in teaching. The college’s teaching philosophy was totally in line with my own. But there was a catch: It was offering me half the pay I could make elsewhere and it would require an hour’s commute each way. When I did the math, I discovered I would be making $7 an hour. I said no.

Conversely, I had a summer opportunity to teach at a prison that also had an hour’s commute, but the pay was good, the course was in my field, and I knew I would get vital perspective on my work. It ended up being a defining experience and stood out on my CV as something every job committee wanted to talk about.

Where you have a choice, choose wisely. Travel time, prep time, class size, adding to your experience cache, and college culture should all figure into your decision.

Cultivate your support network. You are not in this alone. Find friends or faculty who you can turn to for advice. If somebody offers you teaching materials — especially lectures or syllabi — accept them gladly because they may help you reduce your prep time or give you a tested formula to build on. My officemates commiserated and helped me think through challenging classroom situations.

Grow your village beyond your fellow graduate students. My university writing center reviewed my syllabi and asked hard questions about how much homework I was assigning. University supports for teaching — such as one-hour workshops and a pedagogy class — helped me to meet students outside my department as my classmates left for research and fellowships. Making friends at conferences gave me perspective outside the narrow context of my university.

Self-care, self-care, self-care. This is nonnegotiable. At a low point in my Ph.D. program, someone asked me: “How do you imagine life after grad school? What do you daydream about?” I couldn’t respond. I was so preoccupied with staying afloat I had completely lost sight of there being an end point. I realized that — while teaching paid my bills — finishing my dissertation was my goal. I could not teach all the time and make progress on the dissertation. Nor could I work nights and weekends if I wanted to stay healthy.

Figure out what balance of work and life works for you and your responsibilities.

Cultivate hobbies that you can lose yourself in. During graduate school, I taught myself how to swim, got a dog, learned how to knit, and always had a fiction book to read. Make time to connect with family and friends. Take a full week off (if you can) after the end of the semester. Having time to recharge and strengthen your relationships will allow you to do your best work.

Reevaluate your priorities each semester. This is hard to do when you’re in the crucible of trying to make ends meet and make progress on your dissertation. I reached a point with teaching where I realized that I wasn’t necessarily adding much to my CV or my research record. Applying for full-time jobs and grant funding had to come first.

Every time some new opportunity came along, I started to ask myself: Does this expand my research profile? Will it build skills to make me a distinctive job applicant? Will this help me to finish the dissertation?

The answers differed each semester as my workload and dissertation process evolved. For some of you, re-evaluating your priorities may also mean that teaching isn’t worth the time, low wages or emotional cost. My partner, for example, went back to work at his pre-grad-school job because the instability of his temporary teaching gigs was more stressful than working 40 hours a week.

Teaching during graduate school can be challenging, but it is also an opportunity to build your CV and cultivate useful habits that will serve you in whatever career path you choose.

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