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by Jordan Harshman

Fresh from graduate school, I was really looking forward to my first shot at teaching at the University of Iowa. Being a visiting assistant professor was finally my time where I could exercise autonomy and teach the class how I wanted to teach it. No more being a teaching assistant where everything was prescribed for me, no more asking anyone else “is it okay if a student does x, y, or z?”

While I am very happy to be teaching where Herky calls home and the people here are great to work with, being in a temporary teaching position brought a number of things I never really thought of previously. I hope that as I share these thoughts here, anyone currently in or thinking of being in a temporary teaching position may find them helpful.

But first, how did I get here? Most of us realize that chemistry departments are often looking for temporary instructors (often called visiting assistant professors, VAP, visiting lecturer, teaching postdocs, etc.) from time to time. My VAP came with my postdoc, which is not uncommon. Others want teaching experience after grad school or a postdoc. Still others are looking for a temp job because they are waiting for that “dream job” of theirs to come up. It’s even possible that someone takes a job intending for full time teaching, but then life happens, priorities change (you know, the usual…) and then you come to the realization that your days of teaching at that institution are numbered.

I should explain the rather unique teaching position that I am currently in as it’s not exactly a traditional or common situation. I team-teach the laboratory section of a second-semester general chemistry course. Instead of going to labs every week, students here go to labs once every two weeks. The week students are not in lab, they attend a case study, an 80 minute pre-lab, context-rich lecture, which I (and a team teacher, who happens to also be my wife) teach 6 times per week, covering 6 different topics throughout the semester. In addition to case studies, we also prepare and manage our teaching assistants to effectively instruct students in the laboratory.

Regardless of how you ended up or may end up in a temporary teaching gig, here are some tidbits I’ve picked up nearing the end of my first semester in a temporary position.

Protip #1 You are temporary, the department is permanent
This is easily the most important lesson I’ve learned. It’s rare that someone earns a Ph.D. and doesn’t really have opinions about how things should be done – I know I do. Before I started teaching, I was given a plethora of materials: complete lecture slides, case study activities, pre and post lab assignments and grading keys, TA meeting notes, the whole shebang. And as a result, my first impression was that all of that autonomy and independence I so desperately craved was to be a fading dream which would give way to being a cookie-cutter instructor. In the end, this wasn’t true at all and I had plenty of flexibility, but I was initially bummed out. Through the experience, I learned a valuable lesson: I am temporary, the department is permanent. The department had put in many years to get the course content to where it was. If every VAP in that teaching position drastically changed the content and the way a course is taught, that is bad for the department in the long run. In that way, their needs and the way that they can reach the students should take higher precedence than my own addiction to autonomy. And to be honest, I greatly appreciated that a lot of the kinks in the curriculum were already worked out and ultimately have not felt lacking in autonomy.

Protip #2 A cautionary tale of making changes

Seeing that I wouldn’t be there for long, it was interesting when I came across things that I would maybe do differently than in the past. I was able to make decisions and direct the course policies, activities, and lectures, but the people in the department clearly had a lot of time and experience with the course events. What kind of message is given when a new, temporary employee comes in and wants to change everything? This shouldn’t bar anyone away from making any suggestions and changes, but I would certainly recommend thinking about the long term for the department, not just for your course in the short term. 

Protip #3 Discovering the culture is always beneficial

Being in a VAP is kind of like visiting another country. While you can feel welcomed, you still likely feel like a guest as opposed to one of the family. This isn’t a bad thing at all, it’s just a part of the deal when you’re in a temporary position. As a result, however, it is a very good idea to quickly learn the culture of the department you are in and consider altering your own ideas to better fit in with theirs. How do they view things like late work, extra credit, grading philosophy, role of a teaching assistant, and other variable beliefs? While you may input a few of your suggestions and beliefs, someone in a temporary position is better off not making too many changes because you won’t always be around to see the long-term impact they have.

Protip #4 Stand up for what you need out of the position

While I would argue that the emphasis of a temporary teaching position should be more about what’s good for the department in the long run, that doesn’t give a department unbridled authority to tell you exactly what to do and how to do it. This has not been a problem I’ve encountered directly, but could see happening. No matter the reason that you are in the teaching position temporarily, you still need to make sure that you get the experience(s) that you want out of it. Again, this didn’t really apply to me, but if you want to try a new pedagogical style, new content, new policies, don’t immediately give in if the department is opposed to it initially. Rather, carefully choose your battles and be willing to compromise. That way, you’ll be able to balance what you need short term while considering the long term goals of the department.

In summary, temporary teaching positions can be a great place to try new things and gain valuable experiences. As should be clear though, the teaching position is not just about you and someone in that position needs to think about the department as well. Any time I want to bring about major changes, I have to remind myself that those changes are much easier when/if you find a permanent position where you can see things throughout a large portion of time.

Jordan HarshmanJordan Harshman
Postdoctoral Research Associate
Visiting Assistant Professor
University of Iowa
Department of Chemistry