Guest Post: Teaching while dissertating

Today’s guest post is by NeuroPostDoc, a recent Ph.D. moving cross-country to continue her research on human cognition using neuroimaging. 

When the email went out with TA assignments for Spring 2015, my first response was “uh-oh.” I had been assigned to research methods, a writing intensive course known to have the highest workload of all TA assignments in my department. This was a problem because I was already in the midst of my own “writing intensive” – writing my dissertation, with my defense scheduled for finals week. I had the same feeling reading that email as I imagined the captain of the Titanic had when he first saw the iceberg (dissertating also made me a tad dramatic).

I was only TAing during my last year because I needed the health insurance coverage for my husband. I had sworn up and down to my chair and graduate director that I could balance the workload (normally 5th years in my department are supported by a research-only fellowship, which comes with lesser health insurance). So, I wanted to make a good faith effort to work with my assignment before requesting a new one or trying to trade with another grad student. Here are the steps I took that made the situation workable, which I hope will be helpful to anyone struggling with teaching load, whether it’s teaching while dissertating like me, managing teaching while under grant deadlines, or adding an extra class as an adjunct when you know it will be a stretch.

DISCLAIMER: I was only able to pull all this off for a few reasons: I have a good amount of experience teaching this particular course, and I’m also really good at improvising lectures (thanks in part to my theater geekery in high school). I can also do a sort of party trick where I am able to skim text at a pace beyond speed reading with about 80% comprehension (relevant to how I graded assignments). Your mileage may vary.

  1. Clarify expectations beforehand:  I had never worked with the professor in charge of the lecture portion of my assigned lab section, so I met with her to assess her expectations. It turned out that since the class was an online hybrid, most assignments would be turned in online and graded by course software. My job as TA of the weekly lab would be to supervise the planning and execution of final research projects for 25 students, helping them develop methods to design and distribute a survey, analyze and interpret their data, and write a report on the results. I asked if I could optimize the efficiency of this process by having them do research in teams (rather than supervising 25 original projects), and she agreed, and I thought “ok maybe this is doable.”
  1. Get student buy-in: I do this every semester but I think it was especially important this time around: I spend the first lab or two explaining why research is relevant to careers in psychology. Psychology is the largest undergraduate major at my university, and as a result some students get minimal one-on-one advising time. Many of them graduate not knowing much about their grad school options, so I usually start the semester with a sort of cliff notes career counseling session in which I emphasize the importance of internships and hands on research experience in order to be competitive for both the job market and grad school. This also (hopefully) motivates them to take the class seriously because they know the skills they’re learning are relevant to their career goals. And these classes require minimal planning because most of it is just discussing stuff I know well like how to apply to grad school, M.A. vs. Ph.D. vs. Psy.D. programs, etc.
  1. Minimize grading: My students needed to do weekly homework as part of their lab grade but I didn’t have more than 20 minutes a week to spend on grading. My main trick was to assign work with a format that made it really easy to grade, such as a fill-in-the-blank worksheet where I could basically memorize the 15 correct answers and skim each worksheet within 30 seconds or so. For final papers, I made a checklist of the requirements for each paper section and awarded points based on how well these requirements were met. For example, their introduction section required discussion of 10 journal articles, so I would count up the number of unique citations to make sure it reached 10, then I’d go back and skim the content to make sure it made sense, and assign the points for that requirement accordingly. I kept section comments very minimal and simple such as “quote less, paraphrase more.” Each 10 page paper took about 5 minutes to grade using this technique (my speed reading party trick certainly helped here).
  1. Assign group work as much as possible: My typical class structure was to lecture or do a tutorial demonstration for 20-45 minutes on topics such as generating and testing hypotheses, conducting a literature review, or performing correlation analysis. Then, I’d assign an independent exercise (mostly ones I’d used during past semesters) designed to test comprehension of the lecture or demonstration, done either individually or in groups (10-40 minutes). Once we got to the research design phase, about a month into the semester, the students broke into 3 groups based on research topics, and that group became their “team” for the rest of the semester.  I encouraged students to ask their teammates for help first on the independent assignments, and to only bring me problems the group and/or google wasn’t able to solve. During this portion of lab I would sometimes get some grading done, read research articles, or edit sections of my dissertation in between answering student questions. This would be followed by a discussion of the exercise and Q&A (10 minutes) and then sometimes an additional research team task like brainstorming survey questions (20-30 minutes).
  1. Pare the syllabus down to the essentials: When I TA’d research  methods under other professors, they had students design and complete an actual (simple) experiment as well as a correlational study (via a survey). With permission from the professor, I had them conduct a survey only, which was far simpler and less time consuming. To compensate, in lab we did exercises comparing and contrasting correlational and experimental research. We discussed topics such as “what survey questions could be used to measure relationships between variables like sleep quality and grades? How would you measure the effect of sleep quality on grades using an experiment?” These thought exercises still gave the students exposure to both methodologies in a format that was less time consuming and logistically complicated for me.
  1. Be forgiving, so you are in turn are forgiven: Here is the part where some of you are going to cringe. I normally pride myself on having clear, set in stone, high standards for my classes, like not accepting late assignments or giving exam re-takes. But it became clear within a few weeks that insisting assignments be handed in exactly on time, no exceptions, and then taking 3 weeks to grade them  (because I was swamped doing data collection) was not going to endear me to my students. In my experience, students can smell hypocrisy and unfairness from a mile away and it kills their trust in you. So, I relaxed my standards for them a bit in tandem with relaxing them for myself. I accepted late homework in exchange for partial credit. I gave credit (either full or none) for homework rather than assigning points based on percent correct, and pointed out errors in comments rather than by deducting from their grades. When I forgot to distribute formal requirements for an assignment, and only the students who took good notes were able to complete it 100%, I changed it to be extra credit rather than required. I usually am judgemental of professors who use these tactics just to get positive evaluations, but this was an emergency situation of sorts (my defense date was inflexible for various reasons) and being more accommodating than usual smoothed over the bumps in the semester.

Even with these rules in place, there were some panicked Wednesday nights when I realized I had no idea what I was going to do in lab the next morning. Some (ok many) lesson plans I “designed” on the 20 minute train ride to campus. Teaching a course involving my strongest areas (research design and statistics) was a big help here; if I had been teaching something outside my subfield, like social psychology or personality psychology that would require active review of topics before lab, it would have never worked.  I did have moments where I wondered if my students knew just how much I was making up on the fly, but one of my evaluations actually noted that I “talked very calmly” so I guess all that improv training didn’t go to waste.

Here is how all of this worked out timewise (approximated based on average week):

  • Grading: 20 min
  • Class prep: 15 min
  • Lab: 90 minutes
  • Misc (answering email, uploading grades): 40 minutes
  • TOTAL: 2-3 hours/week

What amazed me most was that after all my cut corners, when it came to final projects my students did about the same as ever – a fairly normal distribution of a few Ds and Fs, a lot of B’s and C’s, and a smattering of A’s. I generally believe that if most of an introductory level class fails, at least in my discipline, that means the professor also failed (to teach to an appropriate level for the course, or to manage expectations about course difficulty early enough to weed out those not up to the task). Similarly, if everyone gets an A or a B it suggests the students may not have been challenged properly. A proper grade distribution is my sanity check, and by that metric it was a successful semester.

In the end, teaching during the most intense semester of my academic career thus far taught me several things: to let go, completely, of the idea of perfection; to accept myself as a flawed person with many impossible demands on my time; and to embrace the humbling position of looking like a slacker sometimes (my stack of ungraded assignments grew almost as large as my guilty conscience throughout the semester). This provided me with insight and empathy for my students, many of whom are first generation college students, often working one or more jobs while going to school. Some are caring for children or elderly relatives on top of all that. It used to be easy to look back on my college career, the two internships plus a part time job I juggled while double majoring, and say “if I could handle THAT they should at least be able to turn their homework in on time.”

What I discounted was that when I was in college my time was devoted to my passions. I wasn’t working an exhausting retail job to help my family cover rent, or waking up in the middle of the night to feed an infant, or missing group study sessions to drive an ailing elderly relative to doctor’s appointments. My overscheduled college life was my choice, one I was privileged to be able to make. Working two jobs and/or caring for family is a necessity, not a choice, for many of my students. And I began to understand why they sometimes had so little attention left for my lab, or why some would sit in the back and doze off.  I was writing seven days a week and waking in the middle of the night from nightmares about my defense going badly. My life felt like a trap even though I knew it was a choice. I’m sure that choosing to go to college while juggling family and work demands doesn’t feel like an easy choice for my students either, but we share the conviction that it’s necessary for our futures. And now I also knew what it felt like to fall down on the job sometimes. It was humbling and mortifying in the true sense of “being made mortal.”

My post-doc will provide a reprieve from teaching, but I am grateful to know that if I eventually manage to get a coveted faculty job, I will have a game plan for balancing teaching with scholarship when things seem overwhelming.


11 thoughts on “Guest Post: Teaching while dissertating

  1. I have conflicted feelings about this post. It’s very honest, which allows for some real discussion of these issues. You have used your creativity in handling the situation, but was it for the good of the students? I first taught as a TA and then was a half-time lecturer for almost 15 years. Over the years, I was forced (by our various chairs and by the system) to dumb down my classes significantly. There were several reasons for this, but if I wanted to stay there, I had to do so. One unforeseen consequence is that the more students were “given,” the more they demanded–and I don’t mean education, I mean fewer requirements with great allowance for poor quality work. I was “taught” to teach to my student evals. But is this what we should be doing? And should we be lowering our teaching standards in order to do well in what REALLY MATTERS in our academic careers (and that isn’t teaching, according to the way the system is set up), is that fair to students? To society in general? I can’t judge anyone else for lowering their standards because I did so myself. But ultimately it led me to leave academia because I no longer saw the point of any of it.

  2. Your strategy will serve you really well as a faculty member. In contrast to the previous poster, it doesn’t sound to me like you lowered the standards to the detriment of the students. I think you made smart choices to optimize your time while maintaining course standards.

    Being upfront about your limitations (travel, other commitments etc) and understanding of students’ limitations is appreciated and expected. The current generation of students expects this sort of “customer service”.

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  4. Thanks for the comments!

    Luanne, my experience in this vs. past semesters is that previous attempts to cover more material often led to poorer retention and more frustration for all but the strongest students. Research is multidisciplinary by nature, and giving students a taste of each flavor (survey design, stats, data coding, etc.) actually led to better retention than teaching a wider range of concepts without giving them a chance to apply them.

    I would however probably not offer so much extra credit in a normal semester as it can breed the false expectation that there is always a safety net if students underperform on assignments. The group structure of projects also led to some degree of social loafing, where some of the weak-to-average students leaned a bit too much on their stronger teammates, but it’s possible they would have slacked if working on their own as well.

  5. At my school, TA-ing is considered a half-time appointment: 20 hrs/wk. Unless the situation at your school is radically different, you cheated your students and employer. There are plenty of people who do what you do and get tenure. That doesn’t make it right.

  6. I had the same reaction as several of the commenters here. I too am a 5th year PhD candidate who will be teaching this Fall semester and probably in the Spring as well while I am writing my dissertation and going on the job market. In my department I am the instructor of record for an upper level undergraduate course which generally has 25-30 students. This is considered to be a .25 appointment: 10 hrs/wk. I have also tried to gain efficiency in my workload because there are many weeks in the course I teach which require significantly more than 10 hours – which is also not an equitable work situation.

    However, I venture to say (perhaps incorrectly) that your appointment with better heath benefits was not intended to be a 0.05 to 0.075 appointment and as such you did cheat your employer and more importantly (from my point of view) your students and I would say there was nothing “good faith” about your efforts here.

    You also point out that many of your students were first generation college students who were also working with many demands and responsibilities outside of school. I daresay that they spent more than 5 minutes writing that 10 page paper that you so proudly describe as being able to grade in 5 minutes. I find it hard to imagine that in those 5 minutes you were able to provide substantive feedback that would help them develop “skills…relevant to their career goals.”

    While I do not advocate universities taking advantage of their graduate students by paying them for 10 hours a week while expecting 20 hours a week of work, posts like this one lend support to those administrators who think graduate students are overpaid for teaching positions (these administrators exist at my university). Frankly, I also find your pride in how little work you were able to do as a teacher appalling.

    • Hi KP,

      Thanks for the comment. I did not discuss it in the post but there are indeed larger systemic issues with using grad students as supplements to adjunct labor. In my department, which was a basic science doctoral program with heavy research emphasis, there was no minimum hour requirement for TAs, but there is a strictly enforced maximum of 20 hrs/week. It is explicitly expected (conveyed by the department chair) that the vast majority of grad student’s time is spent on research, and teaching time should be minimized and considered a lower priority. My approach was in good faith per those guidelines, but I do not dispute that the practice of securing TA funding for grad students expecting that 40+ hours will be spent on research, and 5-10 max on teaching, is not a setup that prioritizes the student experience. That’s a topic that probably deserves it’s own post.

      • I agree with you completely that there are larger issues regarding using grad students as supplements to adjunct labor and the workload expected of graduate students at many institutions. At my university quite a few graduate students have been “fired” due to budget cuts and the fact that thanks to our overhead we are more expensive than adjuncts. Departments would rather hire adjuncts or in at least one case I know of rehire a graduate student as an adjunct rather than a graduate assistant to get around having to pay overhead.

        In my department we also have no minimum required hours nor do we have a strictly enforced maximum. We are merely told that our position is either .25 (10 hours/week) or .5 (20 hours/week). I have, as I think most people here do, interpreted that to mean I was expected to work that number of hours per week. In reality we all know that there are some positions that require more or less time per week and that while the hours per week may balance out over the course of the semester the actual hours worked in any given week will vary widely.

        I would still argue that while your approach was in good faith per the guidelines of your department it was not in good faith per the students who you wanted to take the class seriously. I don’t mean to single you out in particular because as you point out it is part of a larger systemic issue. I think taking the approach of here is the way I dealt with the systemic issues while recognizing that the situation forced you to short change your students’ learning experience rather than a how to post detailing the ways to get by doing a bare minimum of work would have been more palatable to me.

        I worry that stories like yours of how you can successfully TA a class spending only 2-3 hours a week will lend support to those politicians and administrators who believe graduate students are over paid for their work. After all if I can TA a class working 2-3 hours a week and a department is going to pay me for 20 hours a week, then certainly they could expect me to TA at least 6 and up to 10 classes. While there are certainly logical flaws to this claim, politicians and administrators are not always known for their use of logic.

  7. You have already some skills that should be the envy of tenure-track faculty in research intensive universities. I applaud you for sharing the details of your strategy. The reality is that we’re supposed to be exceptional at both research and teaching, but if you’re in an institution where the research has much more weight when we go for tenure it is clear that the strategy is just to “teach well enough”… Most people are not as open as you in terms of what they do in this aspect and I thank you for your honesty.

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  9. Pingback: Is a PhD a good investment? A cost-benefit analysis | Tenure, She Wrote

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