Brooke made the trip from Waterville, Maine, to the Dartmouth Center for the Advancement of Learning (DCAL) in Baker Hall in order to talk to grad students about her experience as a first year visiting assistant professor at Colby College. She answered a number of questions, ranging from the requirements of teaching at a small liberal arts college to what it was like to live on-campus in a faculty apartment.
Brooke, who received her Bachelors degree from Colby in 2000, secured her position last year. She said that it helped knowing people and the feel of the institution from her undergraduate career. Her knowledge of what it was like to be a student there and what was expected of faculty allowed her to tailor her teaching statement and CV specifically to Colby. After she learned that she would be teaching at Colby for the 2007-2008 academic year, she wrapped her work in Ron Taylor’s lab, finished her thesis on vibrio cholerae pathogenesis, and defended it in August. One week later she had moved to Maine. Brooke said that it was a very busy summer, as she was finishing her lab work while also putting the curriculum together for the genetics and virology classes she would be teaching next year.
In addition to her knowledge of Colby, Brooke identified a few other factors that help in securing this kind of temporary teaching position right after graduate school. She cited the help she received at DCAL in preparing a teaching statement. It’s also important to have two or three possible classes mentally planned out for the interview committee. She said that it is also very important to show the interview committee a genuine interest in teaching, the position, and the students.
Brooke taught her first class, genetics, this fall. “It helped to teach genetics first,” she said, “because you know exactly what needs to be taught.” When asked how much time she spent per week on preparatory work, she joked that it was “probably less than grad student hours.” She typically arrives in her office around eight in the morning and leaves around six, and spends the evenings polishing the next day’s lecture. She expects that she will spend less and less time preparing lectures as she teaches more classes and accumulates notes and slides.
When asked about the content and style of her lectures, she responded that in the first half of the semester they were detailed PowerPoint presentations. She chose to switch to more handwritten, simpler slides on the overhead projector or visualizer the department ordered for her.
She made the switch in response to student sentiment in a mid-semester evaluation she asked her students to complete. One of the most important lessons she learned from teaching her first class was “Be adaptable.” She decided to administer the evaluation to get feedback from students about her teaching style. When she found out that most of them actually preferred that she work through the problems by hand on a projector, she adapted her lectures accordingly. Also regarding student evaluations, she said that unfortunately the few negative ones tend to stick in her memory. It’s important to remember the positive ones and also that it is impossible to appease all of the students.
Brooke told the grad students about the various aspects of her job. In addition to lecturing, she also helps students conduct research in the lab. Even after only one semester of teaching, she has written recommendations for students. One aspect of teaching, designing tests, labs, and other components of the course, was actually more difficult than she expected. Feedback from other faculty helped her gage the difficulty and length of her tests and quizzes. She also advises students informally, although she currently has no formal advisory duties. She has found that her experience as an undergraduate at Colby and her youth tend to make students more comfortable speaking with her.
It also helps actually to live with the students. She was offered the opportunity to live in a student residence hall in a faculty apartment. This involves several benefits, including free housing and dining, convenience, and proximity to students. She said that, as a dorm resident, her duty is “not really disciplinary; it’s kind of for the students’ amusement.” Her own students might stop by to talk about the class outside of office hours, or maybe a few residents might come in to watch some TV and drink tea.
Grad students also wanted to know about the expected research productivity for the Colby biology department. Brooke said that her position is a teaching one, so she has no specific research requirement. However, she does hope to get some publication experience in the near future for when she begins looking for tenure-track positions. She said that a lot of research happens there during the summer, when there are no students and faculty members have no teaching responsibilities. Generally, for her department around two publications are expected for tenure, which takes around six or seven years. Colby is around the middle of the road for liberal arts schools as far as the balance between teaching and research. Bowdoin, “down the road” from Colby, tends to put more emphasis on research, for example. One nice thing, she noted, is that faculty in her department are not expected to secure their own funding for their labs. They can, of course, still seek grants on their own, but this isn’t required.
In the spring, Brooke will be teaching a class on virology in addition to another course on genetics. She is excited for the challenge of teaching two lab classes. Also exciting, she was offered a second year of teaching at Colby due to her wonderful teaching and the strength of her student evaluations.