Early Career Instructors: Supporting ISA’s next generation of teachers

I’m back from Montreal with an overwhelming to-do list. Regular ALPS readers may have noticed that in recent years I haven’t been writing here as much; that’s partially due to free-riding on Simon and Chad, who do an excellent job; part because I don’t teach undergraduate students anymore; and part because I’m busier than I’ve ever been. I’ve promised Simon that I’ll start posting more, and so here’s an initial effort: unpacking the excellent roundtable discussion on early career instructors at ISA 2023: why we are remiss as a profession in providing support, and some tools and considerations for changing that.

I co-chaired the roundtable with Michael Murphy of Queens University–and if you aren’t reading his work, you should. He is the one who coined the ‘early career instructor’ moniker, an important way of considering the needs of those who are first starting out teaching. As a profession, we generally do a terrible job of preparing our ECIs for the classroom. With some exceptions, graduate students are rarely actively encouraged and supported in pursuing opportunities related to teaching: in general, such opportunities impose some kind of cost to pursue, in time, money, or reputation. Many have shared that they are either actively discouraged from spending any time on learning to teach, and that they are told their career will suffer if they are perceived as caring too much about teaching.

Let’s talk about the problems with this practice.

This is not only unsupportive, its completely illogical from the perspective of advisors who want to see their students succeed on the academic job market. First, most of the jobs are in teaching-institutions, and getting those jobs increasingly requires demonstrating a serious interest in teaching–usually signaled by pursuing workshops, courses, teaching gigs, and other opportunities to either teach or learn how. We do students a disservice by dissuading them from improving their cvs in this area.

Second, teaching takes a lot of time, and a little training goes a long way to reducing the time it takes. Almost any TT academic post requires at least some teaching–and spending some time in grad school to learn how to do this effectively and efficiently is time well spent. Instead, we leave students to reinvent the wheel–spending time on writing lectures that others have already written, creating slides when dozens of slide decks are available, and learning on the job how to lecture, lead discussions, create assignments, and grade–when these are all skills they can learn under the supervision of great teachers

A third reason is that some students–be ready to be shocked–went to graduate school because they are eager to teach. I was one of them–I eventually learned to like my research, particularly when I moved to doing entirely pedagogical research–but I pursued a PhD for the love of political science and the desire to teach at the college level. I’m not alone in this perspective, and we should make space for those that want a career that emphasizes teaching above or alongside research. Pretending otherwise does our students a disservice–and also removes an opportunity for those that might pursue alt-ac careers in education and educational research.

Finally, we owe it to our future students to be good teachers, and being effective in the classroom is a set of skills that can be learned and practiced. Acting like the best way to learn is either to be born a good teacher (good luck with that) or to do it all on the job is simply not consistent with the literature on this. In fact, I’m constantly amazed at how people trained to do evidence-driven work throw that mentality out when it comes to teaching.

In the long run, then, we need to work harder to provide better opportunities, resources, and support for students to learn how to be teachers. This was the main topic of conversation at the roundtable, and here are the four themes that I identified for further study and discussion:

  1. There are great, free tools and resources out there for ECIs to use as you figure out how to teach. These include: the websites of great Centers of Teaching and Learning (such as those at Vanderbilt, Brown, and Yale); the Workload Estimator at Wake Forest University, which can help you figure out how much reading is too much based on the length, density, and purpose of the reading; the Teaching Tools website, which can help you choose an active learning exercise or build a lesson plan; the practical tips and exercises found in both general pedagogy journals as well as those within our discipline (eg, JPSE, ISP, EPS, and PS); APSA Educate; Kansas State’s “Gaming Political Science“, a repository of games and simulations; and the workshops, resources, networks, and sessions offered by the regions; the Visual International Relations Project at USC; and education-focused sections of APSA (Political Science Education); ISA (the newly merged Education and Learning in International Affairs section; the Innovative Pedagogy Conference Committee; and Global International Relations section); plus its teaching hub; PSA’s Teaching and Learning Network; ECPR’s standing group on teaching and learning, and others. For Twitter users, there are also some great threads on that site about teaching and plenty of people that are willing to share resources.
  2. The lack of access to training opportunities disadvantages some ECIs more than others. Scholars in the Global South, those in contingent positions, those at under-resourced institutions that don’t provide travel support, and graduate students may not be able to access the opportunities available at conferences. There are also those at institutions where teaching well or doing pedagogical research does not count towards tenure and promotion, and therefore ECIs may be unable or unwilling to seek out support that might ‘send the wrong message’.
  3. Single classes or workshops are a good start, but not enough on their own to help build all the skills necessary to teach well. ECIs need ongoing mentorship, opportunities to practice their skills with feedback, and the white space to reflect on how to adapt and develop their approach to teaching.
  4. Learning to teach well cannot be done in isolation from our specific students and institutional contexts. We need to consider the needs of our students and make them partners as much as possible as we develop as teachers. That means considering their input on things like course policies, assignment flexibility, topics and readings, and collaborating with them to create a successful learning experience.