On Course: A Week-by-Week Guide to Your First Semester of College Teaching
reviewed by Mary Clement - September 20, 2010
Title: On Course: A Week-by-Week Guide to Your First Semester of College Teaching
Author(s): James M. Lang
Publisher: Harvard University Press, Cambridge
ISBN: 0674047419, Pages: 336, Year: 2010
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The subtitle of James Langs book, On Course, is an apropos summary of the entire book: a week-by-week guide to your first semester of college teaching. Why do the highly educated people who teach in colleges and universities need such a survival guide? They are subject matter specialists who may have never had the opportunity to study the knowledge base of teaching. Langs work adds to the knowledge base of college pedagogy in two ways. He shares his experience and he guides readers to the current and classic research in the field. In his own words, I taught seven classes last year and will do the same next year. Almost everything here has been tested in the fire, and has helped me survive a relatively heavy teaching load in todays academy (p. xiii). Should a reader of this book savor each chapter as the semester progresses? You will be best prepared for the semester if you read the book right through at least a month before you begin teaching (p. xiii).
The practical aspects of the book include some step-by-step guidelines, such as the 20-page chapter on building a syllabus. The suggestions for the first day of class include tips for proper attire and ideas for ice-breakers. Most importantly the chapter reminds the instructor to present the syllabus, to introduce the students to the course topic or material in a substantive way (p. 25), and to get some student participation. The author is very clear that the first day must be used to the fullest no early dismissals or half-classes because you want to set a business-like tone of engaging students in the course content.
How does anyone teach anything at the college level? Lectures, discussions, and small group work constitute a lions share of college teaching strategies. Hence, Lang devotes a chapter to each. These chapters mesh Langs personal experiences of learning how to teach with the research base. In other words, new and veteran instructors can use his research to explore these teaching methods further from the cited articles and texts. Each chapter of the book ends with a resource list. If you want more information, the basic legwork is done for you. With regard to how to teach, Langs chapters include such specifics as voice, gesture, and movement (p. 69), and how to add visuals and multi-media to instruction. As is his style throughout the book, if Lang gives three reasons for using collaborative learning, each reason is supported by research.
What bothers most college instructors, causing them restless nights and increased blood pressure? Grading, dealing with todays students, and academic dishonesty may top the list. Lang has covered these topics, but generally without the step-by-step hints or how-tos, because he recognizes that there are multiple answers to questions regarding collecting late assignments, determining a grading system, and how students learn. Langs goal is not to send you back for a second doctorate in learning theory (p. 155), but to provide readers with enough concrete examples that they see the need for further reading or study, while successfully fulfilling their current teaching duties.
With regard to todays students, Lange does not take the approach of telling readers the characteristics of millennial students, as many other writers have, but rather discusses students as people (Chapter Eight). He writes, if you probed into the details of the lives of all your students, you would be astonished to discover how many compelling tales of hardship and struggle are walking in and out of your classroom every day (pp. 180-181). His advice is not to delve into their personal lives, but to recognize that students do have complex lives outside of the classroom, and to stick with your standards for content mastery and passing the course. You are the instructor, not a counselor. If they reveal to you that they want, or need help, know where to refer them for professional help.
If student cheating is what is keeping you awake until 3 AM, the chapter on academic honesty provides background on why students cheat and how they cheat. Then, methods for the prevention of academic dishonesty are covered. Simple methods include designing assignments that are difficult to plagiarize, making sure students understand the rationale behind assignments, and being present and alert to proctor exams. Follow established institutional procedures for responding to cheating.
Once you read Langs book, will your teaching become easy, allowing you more life balance? The answer is yes, no, maybe, and it all depends. When one works in higher education, teaching is only a part of the duties. Research and service, combined with the time spent negotiating campus politics, can absorb your life. However, I, like Lang, believe that the more you know about the art and science of teaching, the better equipped you will be to complete your teaching in a timely manner, which should allow more time, and focus, for your research and service.
As a professor of teacher education, my doctorate is in curriculum and instruction. In other words, Im an expert in what to teach and how to teach. I was hooked on Langs book as soon as he cited Benjamin Blooms classic 1956 research about writing instructional objectives for teaching (p. 7). I teach methods classes for future high school teachers, who must take six semester hours of curriculum, methods, and instructional management to qualify for teaching licensure. (This is in addition to coursework in educational psychology, needs of exceptional children, diversity of education, and 14 weeks of supervised student teaching.) Even with professional training, new high school teachers often struggle to master teaching in their early years. No wonder new PhDs struggle to teach, since many may never have had any exposure to the knowledge base of teaching. Langs book gives them the crash course in teaching, in a user-friendly format, supported with strong resources.
When it comes to developing as a teacher, Parker Palmer may have said it best, Technique is what teachers use, until the real teacher arrives, and we need to find as many ways as possible to help that teacher show up (1997, p. 21). Langs book provides the techniques to start, or improve upon, ones teaching, and the theory and philosophy to guide an instructor to develop into a highly successful collegiate teacher. It is certainly a way to help that teacher show up.
Palmer, P. J. (Nov.-Dec., 1997). The heart of a teacher: Identity and integrity in teaching. Change, 29(6), 14-21.