Innovative Pedagogy and Non-tenured Faculty (Amity Reading, DePauw University)

Amity Reading, Department of English, DePauw University

Amity Reading, DePauw University

As an assistant professor nearing the end of my probationary period, I am intimately familiar with the pressures that attend the tenuring process. I sometimes feel so overwhelmed by the task of compiling a strong tenure file that I shy away from the very things that would ultimately help me in that task: exploring research avenues or teaching techniques outside my comfort zone. But if I am trying to amass a body of evidence that shows me at my best, don’t I need to perfect those things I already do well instead of pushing my boundaries in what could be a risky fashion? Won’t there be time for trying new things after I get tenure? Jus some of the questions I ask myself.

Innovative pedagogy, in particular, can be intimidating in this respect. Teaching observations, annual reports, and student evaluations tend to factor weigh heavily on the minds of untenured and contingent faculty when they are preparing and instructing courses, and the looming presence of up-coming assessments can cast a shadow over classroom teaching, though the “threat” is largely imagined. In fact, assessments like these provide very useful feedback that is, for the most part, well-considered and constructive. When assessments are working at their best and are woven into a larger structure of institutionally-supported professional development and encouragement, they can make us better teachers. They can also help document many the good things we already do in the classroom, and provide an open line of discussion with our colleagues so that we all have a better sense of our pedagogical values as individuals, departments, and universities.

On the other hand, such assessments can also seem pointless, arbitrary, and dangerously fickle, and if we have one bad day during an observation or one bad semester’s worth of student evaluations, we can feel as if we are under siege, with our teaching skills and our expertise brought into question, and our jobs placed on the line. Give this, it might seem like the last thing we would want to do would be to integrate new and potentially disruptive pedagogical approaches into our teaching repertoires, approaches that in some cases are still in flux and with which many of our senior colleagues—the very colleagues who will be evaluating our tenure files—might fundamentally disagree.

Having been an assistant professor at two different GLCA schools, however, I can confidently say that despite all this, I am still committed to using innovative pedagogy in the classroom and that this approach has paid, for both my students and myself. I say this to encourage other untenured and contingent faculty members to keep trying new things in the classroom—it is well worth it.

That said, I am also sympathetic to the myriad delicate situations in which non-tenured faculty and instructors can find themselves, and so here are the things I tell myself whenever I’m tempted to resort to my usual bag of tricks instead of trying something new:

  • Remember that above all, your tenure case or your reappointment are contingent on you doing your job well and demonstrating that you are committed to growing and improving as a teacher. In the end, integrating innovative pedagogy into your classes will only help you in this regard, even if there are some rough patches at first. Many of the techniques that you try will show themselves to be of great value, which will eventually or even immediately positively impact your teaching evaluations and peer-to-peer observations. And if things a bit off the rails in the classroom, when writing your assessment narratives, you will be able to supply a thoughtful discussion that explains and contextualizes the situation. Indeed, given the culture of many of our schools’ assessment structures, we have the opportunity for reply and rebuttal, and though the exact form of this may vary from institution to institution, it is a common best practice for colleges and universities to provide a space for this kind of response. Indeed, narratives of this nature are invaluable for demonstrating one’s continuing development—not just initial success—as a teacher, and this is ultimately one of the most essential components of your tenure file or employment record.
  • Let your own pre-existing pedagogical values continue to inform your teaching choices. Don’t try to completely reinvent yourself as a teacher simply to incorporate new teaching choices, and don’t pick the most outlandish and controversial techniques possible just to try something new. Instead, think about what is important to you in a specific class and search for new and different techniques to accomplish that old and familiar goal. Or, perhaps, you might try identifying a goal that you have always had but never explicitly emphasized. For example, during a recent teaching workshop, I realized that careful listening is a goal I have for students in all my classes, despite the fact that I only sometimes give assignments that emphasize the skill. Careful listening was something I hoped my students already had rather than something I actively taught I have subsequently integrated a number of small but innovative techniques into all my classes to reflect this newly-discovered goal. Since listening wasn’t a skill I had previously assessed in isolation, there were no pre-existing assignment structures to change and this provided a perfect opportunity to try something completely new without feeling the need to change an already successful assignment.
  • Start small and don’t make big choices all at once. Following from the previous point, remember that in terms of practice, ‘innovative pedagogy’ is a relative concept—what is new for you is new for you, even if it isn’t necessarily ground-breaking. For example, if you’ve never had any experience with digital media in the classroom, don’t suddenly overhaul your 300-level Chaucer course and turn it into a digital humanities class. Instead, begin by slowly integrating novel techniques and approaches, even if that means something as simple as a single online assignment in a class that previously had no digital content. Keeping the stakes low will improve your chances of successfully integrating the material and will keep the work-load reasonable. If you find that your new assignment is effective, your confidence will grow and you will begin to develop a new repertoire that can be adapted for a number of different classes and contexts. You will also begin to feel more comfortable with the idea of more ambitious pedagogical techniques, like classroom flipping—or at least they will begin to seem somewhat feasible whereas before they seemed impossible. If the assignment fails, keeping the stakes low will minimize the learning impact for the students, not to mention the instructor’s anxiety.

These are very simple tips, but they help to remind me that we often get things backwards. In the end, I want to get tenure because I am a good teacher; I don’t want to pretend to be a good teacher so that I can get tenure. And I fundamentally believe that pushing my boundaries as a teacher is the only real way to improve. Integrating innovative pedagogy, even just one assignment at a time, offers a perfect chance to do just that, in a manageable and productive way.

April 10, 2017