Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Other Voices: "The Terrors and Triumphs of Teaching in a One-Person Department"

There doesn't seem to be much literature on the topic of teaching in a small department, but the anthology Teaching in the Small College: Issues and Applications edited by Richard A. Wright and John A. Burden (New York: Greenwood Press, 1986) seems a fairly good repository of some reflections on small college teaching generally.

James K. McReynolds' contribution, "The Terrors and Triumphs of Teaching in a One-Person Department" is a perceptive first-person account of what it is like to be in this singular (!) situation. The terrors are common enough--being overburdened, underappreciated, and isolated--but I find that his discussion of the triumphs worth focusing on. [My term hasn't started yet, so for now I have a positive outlook on life; maybe when the first stack of grading comes due, I'll change my tune.]

McReynolds claims that the triumphs of teaching in a one-person department
emerge in three areas: (1) curricular constuction and control, (2) institutional advantages, and (3) student development. (18)
Regarding (1), McReynolds points out that in singelton departments (and this may go for 2- and 3-person departments as well) faculty exert comparatively more control over the curriculum than in larger departments, and the sense of control over the curriculum is something to be valued. McReynolds suggests creating flexible courses, the specific content of which can be varies from year to year, so that faculty can experiment either with content or pedagogical methods without having to visit the college curriculum committee every term. With fewer people looking over one's shoulder, one is freer to try out new things in the classroom, and, perhaps, teach courses that merge with one's research interests.

McReynolds also recommends (and this was suggested by some respondents to my survey) using more active-learning pedagogies. This may enable faculty members to, among other things, more readily teach courses in which they are not expert and deal with a heavy course load. [The literature on active learning is rich--I shan't recapitulate it here.]

Regarding (2), McReynolds says this:

The small college experience offers a wonderful opportunity to feel a deep sense of community--that one is supportively and constructively involved in the life of the college. A professor can have a substantial impact not only in his or her department, but in the institution in general. (20)

This may be true in the small college, but, clearly, not every small department exists in a small college, so this claim may be true for some, but not all, of those of us teaching in small departments.

Finally, regarding (3)--student development--McReynolds anticipates some of the remarks made by survey respondents regarding the value of being closely involved in the growth and development of one's students. I have found this to be the most significant aspect of thriving in a small department: faculty who are genuinely interested in being instrumental in the academic, emotional, and intellectual development of their students will do well in small departments. Not only is it the sort of attitude that chairs, deans, and hiring committees look for in new faculty, but it is one of the rewards of being in such a position. That is to say, if you do not get satisfaction from being involved in student development in this way, you may not enjoy life in a small department, as the satisfaction that comes from such involvement is one of the chief benefits offered to us.