Jul 17, 2023 • Avik Das
In 2022, I got the opportunity to live out my dream of teaching a university course, and that too in theoretical computer science. Despite how busy my day job was, I knew I had to take that opportunity or I would regret it. After teaching for two semesters, I found the experience both exhilarating and too much of a time commitment to continue next semester. To get into the habit of writing again, I want to reflect on that experience.
Disclaimer: these are my thoughts after just two semesters of teaching, and I don’t mean for this to be any sort of “words of wisdom”. For that reason, I’ll keep my thoughts light. If anyone with more experience wants to weigh in, I would love to hear your thoughts!
There’s a lot of trial-and-error. I thought teaching required credentials and apprenticeship, the way I saw student teachers practice teaching in high school. Instead, I was given pretty much free reign to teach how I wanted, as long as I submitted grades at the end of the semester. I found it simultaneously freeing to have that autonomy and scary to be trusted to that degree. But, even if I had the credentials, I would still need to adapt my teaching style every semester based on some (informed) trial-and-error. I want to give a huge thanks to my mentor at the same university who guided me on the course design.
Going the extra mile is really expensive. Students appreciated my timely grading, detailed feedback and copious office hours throughout the semester. I wanted students to have as many resources as possible. For example, homework assignments were due as late as possible on the Tuesday before a Thursday exam, and I tried to finish grading by midday on Wednesday so students could use that feedback to study for the exam. Unfortunately, doing this takes a lot of effort, and probably is the primary source of me burning out on teaching. I don’t blame teachers who prioritize ease of instruction over individualized support.
It’s hard to teach within a broken system. And by system, I mean all of education, not the institution. Students often take a full course load while working full-time due to financial constraints, something I never had to do because of my privilege. They also were not always prepared thoroughly by previous classes, again something I was privileged enough to not worry about because my parents could afford the rent needed to send me to well-funded schools and I had the time to focus on my academics even before college. No matter how much effort I put into teaching, I can’t help someone who doesn’t have the 10-12 hours a week needed to truly learn the material.
Inclusive policies can help decrease the burden. Recordings for all lectures and office hours, open book exams, flexible deadlines if someone asked… all of these prevented the need for additional scrutiny on my part to determine if someone was “worthy” of an accommodation. Sure, if someone had medical documentation, they could request such accommodations via the university, but inclusive policies benefit those who can’t get a formal diagnosis or are afraid of retaliation. If I kept teaching, I would continue finding ways to extend “accommodations” to all students by default, both to make my life easier and because these accommodations are, as the Speech Prof says, just good teaching practices.
I once heard that the first year of teaching is just learning to keep your head above water, and I had to give up before I got into the groove, apparently. That does mean the above reflections are based on very little experience. But to be clear: I loved teaching, and I intend to find my way back to it.