Tuesday, April 14, 2020

“Keep Your Job, Ken!” Part 6: Teaching

by Professor Kenneth Hanson, Florida State University


Part 6 of the “Keep Your Job, Ken!” series is dedicated to teaching. While we regularly serve as teachers in the lab, this section is focused on the traditional, classroom meaning of teaching. If you are at a research focused institution and not a PUI, the reality is that teaching is not a high priority. We are not hired for our ability to teach nor do we have formal training as teachers. It is, however, a necessary part of the job that, according to the effort statement I sign every semester, takes up ~25% of my effort. Unfortunately, it is one of those things that many of us enjoy doing but is not a priority. Doing it really well does not necessarily help but doing it poorly can definitely hurt. With that in mind, most of the advice below focuses on maximizing your efficiency and effectiveness in teaching without compromising your research.

1) Find the class that no one wants to teach and teach it. Teaching a class for the first time is difficult and time consuming, but each subsequent round becomes easier and easier. With that in mind, your ideal scenario is to minimize the number of different classes you teach. My strategy has been to find a class that nobody wants to teach and/or a class with several sections each semester. Regarding the former, there are certain, upper level courses that are taught once a year by someone who has been teaching it for the past 20 years. They and/or the department might let you teach it when you first arrive but you can pretty much guarantee that you are going to have to fight to teach it repeatedly. Alternatively, there may be a class no one likes, that falls out of current expertise, or where there are enough sections to accommodate everyone who’s interested. Regardless of the cause, this is the class you can claim and teach several times before tenure. For me this ended up being General Chemistry 2. Sure, it is a 250-person class but there are consistently several sections available as most of my colleagues don’t like teaching large classes. The large class can be a shock to the system but after teaching it a few times I can largely operate on cruise control. I did also end up teaching a few different graduate courses but my fallback was always Gen Chem 2.

2) Don’t reinvent the wheel. When I learned which class I’d be teaching, the first thing I did was walk around with a USB stick, visit every faculty member who had taught it previously, and ask them for their course content. Everyone I spoke with was willing to share. While I did not use all or even most of the content, it was an extremely helpful foundation for generating lecture slides, test questions, homework, etc. Most of the standard text books also offer a collection of lecture slides, images, and questions to choose from. Likewise, most classes have been taught countless times by thousands of different people, many of whom are good at it. Many useful lectures, questions, and other things are just one internet query away. To give back to the community I have made all of my class PowerPoints available on my group website.

3) In terms of lecture notes and/or PowerPoint slides, do them well the first time. Just like supplementary grant materials, your semester to semester course content will largely be the same. As such, it is worthwhile to generate quality content the first time around. It takes more time up front but will save a lot of time in the long run.

4) If you can, use a separate email account for teaching. Even if your syllabus, timeline, lectures, etc. are perfectly clear, you will inevitably get lots of emails. This is one of the most difficult things when teaching a large class. It’s important to respond in a timely manner since one of the biggest complaints sent to the chair and that appear in semester-end evaluations is that “the professor doesn’t reply to emails.” You also don’t want to lose important research emails (e.g. speaking invitations, invitations to review, grant acceptance/rejections, etc.) in the bombardment. The best way I found to deal with the volume is to use two separate email accounts, one for teaching and another for everything else. Since both are university business you won’t be able to just set up a @yahoo.com or @gmail.com account. This was easy for me because I have separate departmental and university email accounts. For others though you might have to ask to set up a separate email address but presumably your institution will be able to accommodate you. Once established, you can use the time management strategies mentioned previously and block out time to exclusively address teaching emails. You will also want to start setting up an email reply archive that allows you to quickly copy and paste most of your responses (see next post in the series).

5) Clearly define course content, expectations, grade criteria, and timelines. Students will put up with a lot (i.e. poor lectures, difficult tests, hard work, etc.) as long as they know exactly what to expect. The biggest complaint that students send the dean or department chairs, even more so than poor email response practices, is frustration over a lack of course organization and clarity. For example, instructors changing their grading criteria is the primary cause for students challenging grades. And rightfully so. For example, we had one instructor change their grading policy mid-semester  from dropping the lowest-test score to replacing the lowest score with a percent of the final. For most this had very little effect on their grade or position in the class but by changing the rules mid-stream they lost their students’ trust. Dealing with grade challenges can take a lot of time and effort so it is not worth it. Just make a plan and stick with it.   

6) Write your first undergraduate exams much ‘easier’ than you think they should be. Our lens for teaching, exams, homework, etc. is largely shaped by our own experience as students. The problem is that individuals who become chemistry professors were most likely exemplary and highly motivated students that thrived in a traditional classroom setting. However, the other 99% of the students in your classes are not you. Not only that, writing a quality exam and quality questions is a learned skill. Are you assessing what you think you’re assessing? How long will the test take the average student? Are there alternative ways to interpret the wording of a test question? These questions are difficult to answer prior to giving the exam and even more difficult if you have never written an exam before. Not only that but even changing a single word in the question can sway the outcome by 5-10%. Since a low first test score can be devastating to the students moral, your evaluations, and your drop/ withdrawal/ fail rates, it is much better to default on giving an ‘easier’ exam. I suspect you’ll find the class average will be much lower than you thought it would be. Worst case scenario the test is too easy and you can compensate later with more difficult exams.

7) Use teaching release wisely. Most research-focused chemistry programs will give one or two semesters of teaching release to new faculty. With two semesters of release time available to me the most common advice I received was to use one early to get the lab up and running. Then, use the second later for the tenure tour (see my previous post). If only one semester release is available, I strongly feel that the former is more important than the latter. Even while teaching it is possible to squeeze in several trips without missing much class time. However, getting research up and running while simultaneously teaching a class for the first time can be very challenging. If contemplating between the fall versus the spring of the first year, I recommend waiting until the Spring too because most of the first Fall semester will be spent purchasing and waiting for delivery. This is especially true for major equipment that must go through weeks (or months) of the sole-source/bidding process. And even after purchasing, equipment can take several months to arrive and be installed. Also, depending on the graduate student rotation/ decision timeline, you likely won’t officially have group members until the end of the first semester. Taking release in the spring then becomes ideal for setting everything up and starting to train your students. It also segues directly into the summer where there’s no teaching and you can direct all of your attention to research.


  1. Thanks Ken for the post! a related question: how do you engage in outreach activities and how much should you get involved in outreach activities?

    1. In terms of outreach, at least through the lens of NSF broader impacts, I have no profound insights because the amount and activities vary greatly. I have seen people successful doing very little and I have seen others not get tenure or an NSF-CAREER with very strong outreach. The thing I have always been told is that outreach will not help you get tenure or a grant but the lack of it can work against you. If for example, you are on the boarder-line for NSF funding, your broader impacts could be used to justify not giving you the grant.

      In terms of my engagement, even from my times as a graduate student I have been heavily involved but mostly because I enjoy doing it. This includes things like judging science fairs, visiting high schools, Science cafes, chemistry magic shows, etc. My primary contribution as an assistant professor was of my own creation and it involved setting up up a tent at a music and art event in Tallahasse with a sign that said “Ask a Scientist.” I would invite 4 or 5 other professors from FSU to hang out, drink beer, and talk science with the public. If I am being completely honest, even if the public was not there, I would take this as a great opportunity to hang out with my colleagues. We have been doing this monthly for over 6 years now. I did a blog post on it in 2014 so you can read more about it here:
      Once I hit a groove, it was not too involved. It lonely takes me 8-10 emails and then 4-5 hours on the First Friday of every month. Despite being fun and easy, this was the main portion of my successful NSF-CAREER proposals broader impacts. The one thing I did get critiqued on was that it was an already established event and not a new pursuit but at that point the reviewer is just looking for something to complain about.

      In terms of finding opportunities, I would try asking around your department because they might have something already established you can dive into. Alternatively, contacting someone in your PR office might be a good option. Since they often do news stories on university outreach, they have their fingers on the pulse of what is going on. Regardless of what you do, I would try to make it somewhat unique. I can’t tell you how many proposals I have reviewed whose primary focus is going to a grade school twice a year to do an activity. While a great thing to do, it is uninspired as far as a proposal goes.

      One thing I will recommend is to document all of your service. Anytime you give a tour, serve on a university advice panel, judge a science fair, etc. write it down and take pictures and videos if possible. It makes doing your annual grant updates easy and provides clear evidence of performance. Documenting also helps with your pre-tenure annual and/or 3rd year evals as well as with the tenure package submission. Same thing with your service to the scientific community. Document every grant (agency and number) and manuscript review (journal and number). For the latter, I recommend using a third-party service like Publons who basically do the book keeping for you.

      I hope this helps. Let me know if you have any more questions.


looks like Blogger doesn't work with anonymous comments from Chrome browsers at the moment - works in Microsoft Edge, or from Chrome with a Blogger account - sorry! CJ 3/21/20