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.


  1. Do you happen to have any data on philosophy profs in theological seminaries? I know that a lot of seminaries offer courses in things like philosophy of religion and ethics, but I am unsure about how many seminaries actually employ a PhD in philosophy to teach these things. I would imagine some do, in which case the philosopher would not be in "small department" per se, but would nonetheless be the only one in his or her field. Any information on this? For various reasons, a position as a philosopher in a seminary has always been my "dream job" as it were. Thoughts?

  2. Hey Andrew, I was at your presentation in Guelph, and loved it. It is good to see this blog with everything worked out. Anecdotally (should I say it twice to make it data?), I am a singleton, but not a department. I don't have majors; we only offer a minor. Our administration has begun to take over the curriculum direction now. I have been told to change the courses required for the minor to serve other departments (nursing and business, in particular), and to get rid of the grad-school prep. courses. Yet, they don't want courses in support of certain other departments, like Art, the Sciences, or Humanities. Yet, oddly, most students in the disciplines they want me to serve are allowed only a few (if any) electives. So I will end up having to create upper-division philosophy courses with NO prerequisites, and co-taught with "members of the community." It was implied in this discussion with the administration that the students with an interest in philosophy itself don't really matter since there are never more than 15 minoring in philosophy at any one time (with a study body of 7,000 students). This situation seems to take away most of the benefits of being in a small "department." I wonder if this sort of thing is happening anywhere else.

  3. I'm the single philosopher, part of a Humanities department, at a satellite campus of a large state university with a student body of approximately 1200. This first year I'm teaching all ethics courses, several sections in support of the business department (business ethics). My plan is to teach a new course in an entirely different area of philosophy, and different from my AOS, every forthcoming year. So, next year I'm teaching environmental philosophy. This will allow me to expand my teaching as well as my research in entirely new directions--which, of course, keeps things interesting for me. This arrangement is almost unheard of in a multiple person department at a flagship university, where everyone specializes in 2-3 areas and cannot teach in any other faculty member's area without stepping on toes. All in all, I believe that it will make me a much more well-rounded philosopher, both as a teacher and as a researcher.