Teaching with practitioners

This guest post comes from Giulia Tercovich of Vesalius University.

The number of non-tenure-track teachers that are employed because of their significant expertise in their non-academic domain is growing.

On the one hand, these practitioners represent an opportunity for higher education institutions. They add exciting insights to the course, they add a human-element to policy-making, they represent an opportunity for students to think about their future careers and increase the institution’s visibility.

On the other hand, they often lack pedagogical training, they are not familiar with the academic environment and its administration, and the amount of information they can share depends on the rules imposed by their employer.

This post draws on my own experience as Coordinator for student learning and faculty support, and it benefited from several discussions with colleagues from my institution and the inputs received during the workshop recently hosted during the EuroTLC conference.

In my experience, when a practitioner (co-)teach an academic course, four actors are actively involved in the process: the students, the practitioner him/herself, the administration and the co-teacher or mentor. This complex relationship between these four actors is not always easy to navigate. Therefore, I would like to share with you the five lessons I have learned in the past years to make the co-teaching with a practitioner running more smoothly.

First, ask the practitioner what his/her (learning) objectives are. In other words, what are the practitioner’s motivations for (re-)joining academia as an instructor? The answer ‘I would like to keep a foot in academia’ is not enough. They might be curious about teaching methods or new learning tools in academia. They might also be interested in learning how to apply theories, and we all know that teaching something is also an excellent way to learn it. It is also important that you reassure them if they show some kind of ‘epistemological guilt’.

Sometimes, practitioners feel they should ‘prove’ themselves in academia, and they often try to do it by filling the course with very complex theoretical considerations. It is important to reassure them that, if they do not feel comfortable with theories, they do not have to master them. For practitioners, teaching might also represent an excellent opportunity to reflect and to take some critical distance from their daily work.

Second, plan a good narrative. It is not a secret that a good course is a course that tells a story. The course should not merely be informative, but it should engage students in the learning process. This narrative should be built jointly with the practitioner. It might be based on her/his experience, or it might rely on a more traditional structure where the practitioner provides the case-studies.

What matters is that the instructor(s) share and own the narrative. Planning (and owning) a good narrative takes time, be sure to allow sufficient time to this critical moment. 

Third, manage students’ expectations. Students, especially if they are in their final years, might be very excited about having an expert as a lecturer. The initial excitement might quickly turn in big disappointment if you do not manage students’ expectations appropriately. For example, practitioners might have a different and more ‘traditional’ teaching style. They might include a lot of anecdotes, or they might share a view that is biased by their experience or their positivist approach to the subject.

Beyond the content of the class, students must be able to learn also about how to ‘learn’ from different lecturers. This is a skill that might be added to the learning objective of the course (interesting tips about this were shared by Marleen Rensen during her EuroTLC workshop on Teaching with Life Stories). 

Fourth, identify one contact person in the administration. Practitioners are likely to be less accustomed to academic administration. Navigating the administrative elements that are linked to teaching, including the use of a learning platform, the grading system and the use of rubrics, get accustomed to students’ policies, is not an easy task, and this is even more true for practitioners.

On the one hand, you do not want to discourage your expert from sharing his/her expertise in an academic environment. On the other hand, you also do not want to end up being the full-time secretary of the practitioner. The solution to this dilemma is to ask your administration to identify one contact person within the administration to support your practitioners in the daily administration of a course. Unfortunately, I am aware that this is not always possible. 

Fifth, reflect on why you are doing this (joint) effort and nourish your motivation. Co-teaching a course with a practitioner it is not a splitting exercise. Instead of sharing the workload, you will end up doubling the effort. An essential tip is to be aware of this from the beginning and find a better motivation for the extra time you will need to invest in the course.

There are a lot of pros in sharing a course with practitioners. Firstly, you will increase and/or maintain your network of experts. This might also help you in growing the list of potential guest lecturers that you might need for other classes. Secondly, you might gain valuable insights about case-studies that are also relevant for your research. Finally, having a regular exchange of views with an expert, who is more hands-on in your field might even challenge your knowledge and your teaching approach to the subject.

If so far, you have been reluctant about involving practitioners into your courses, my suggestion would be to accept the challenge as a very enriching opportunity.