I recently had a conversation with someone who said he thinks the second year of a course is the best year and that, after three years, he wants to move on. But I’ve also had conversations with others who would be happy to teach the same course for eternity. And I know still others who initially wanted to teach the same course over and over and over, but who now prefer to switch more often.
Part of why I’ve been having these conversations is I’ve been thinking lately about how long I want to teach Introductory Biology, even though I’m not sure how much of an option I have in terms of how long I will teach it for – I don’t think I’d be forced to if I said I absolutely didn’t want to do it, but there is definitely pressure to stay in it. But, for reasons I’ll explain more below, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how many times is the “right” number of times to teach a course and whether that number changes over the course of one’s career.
So, let’s start out with a poll. And, to be clear: I recognize that there are often things that take us away from what we’d prefer, and that, for some, some of these questions might feel like imagining what you’d do with an extra million dollars. (Yes, I sometimes wonder about that, too.)
To give more about my personal experiences and thinking on this:
A common piece of advice given to new faculty is to teach the same courses repeatedly, in order to cut down on prep time – I’ve even given it myself! But for a variety of reasons (mainly: department teaching needs, moving to a new university, and course reductions related to having children), my pre-tenure teaching did not follow this advice – there was only a single course that I taught twice while pre-tenure, which is not exactly an optimal strategy!
Since arriving at Michigan, my main teaching has been in Intro Bio. I taught in the old, content-heavy format in my first semester here, and have now taught the overhauled course three times. I’ll be on sabbatical next year, but have signed on to teach Intro Bio again in Fall 2019.
I feel very uncertain about what to do after that. Part of this is because, while the subsequent semesters haven’t been quite as stressful as that first semester where we overhauled things, I still find it a very stressful course to teach. (I might write a post some time on the problem we’ve created by making the course demonstrably better for student learning but also, in my opinion, not particularly sustainable for the faculty teaching it.) But part of it is also because other things are starting to seem really appealing to me. I would love to teach an upper level undergraduate course on the ecology and evolution of infectious diseases. I taught a discussion-based course on this at Georgia Tech, and it was my favorite course of all the ones I’ve taught; I can imagine teaching a larger version of this course here at Michigan. Reading Mark Hunter’s monograph keeps reminding me of all the really cool ecology stuff that I don’t get to cover in Intro Bio, making me want to teach ecology again. (I taught General Ecology twice at Georgia Tech but haven’t taught it at Michigan. I’ve been surprised to realize lately that I really kind of miss teaching it!) And there’s been some discussion about changing some more of the Intro Bio labs at Michigan, and the idea of teaching an ecology-themed Intro Bio lab sounds really fun to me. But, as I said at the beginning, I’m also not sure how much flexibility I’ll have. Intro Bio is a huge teaching need in the department, and it’s a challenging course to fill. So, I suspect my department will want me to keep teaching it for longer.
All of which is to say: I’ve been thinking a lot about what is the “right” number of times to teach a particular course. I’m sure there’s variation with the particular course and circumstances and with personality. I’m really interested in hearing more thoughts in the comments about the factors that go into determining your preferences for how many times you’d like to teach the same course and what keeps you from doing so!