Top Ten Tips for Teaching Outside Your Area of Specialism
In the last top ten tips we listed some general advice for those starting out in their Higher Education teaching career. This time the focus is on how to cope when you are asked to teach a subject that is a long way from your specialist area. This happens on a regular basis especially to junior scholars who are filling in for someone else or who have to teach on broad survey courses. Here’s how to make the best of the experience.
Don’t forget, however little you think you know about a particular subject, you will always know enough to teach your students something, so don’t panic!
It is a tendency when we are not familiar with a subject to over-prepare for lectures, seminars or tutorials because we are not confident enough to speak off the cuff about the topic. Remember not to spend too much time on preparing for the session; it is not in your interests, or that of students in other classes that you teach, to dedicate days of research to one topic.
There is nothing wrong with telling your students that this is not your main area of research and that you hope to learn from them as well as vice versa. They will respect your honesty and members of the class may be keen to show you the depth of their knowledge.
There is no shame in asking colleagues to share their teaching ideas or materials with you if you are not sure how to approach a particular topic. This is especially true if you are teaching alongside them on a large module. Most lecturers know how tough it is to teach something away from your research interests and they will be happy to help out with information or materials.
For your own sanity and the good of your students try to prepare lessons a few weeks ahead if you need to research from the materials (e.g. books from the library) that they will use. You don’t want to take out all the books on a particular topic and leave the students nothing to work with!
As a simple memory exercise, make sure you know the basic outline of themes and arguments relating to your topic without having to refer to notes. You may not hold this information in your head for very long, but it will give you the confidence while in front of the class to know that you have the basic knowledge in your head. For the rest, refer to your notes.
This is true for all sessions but especially those where you are teaching unfamiliar subjects: do not try to bluff your way out of it! You will gain respect (and seem more human) if you admit you don’t know the answer to a particular question. One technique is to throw it back at the students, asking if anyone from the group knows the answer; if not, then tell them you will look up the answer for next week, and remember to do so!
In the busy atmosphere of term time it can be difficult to keep your notes in order, but make sure you keep a record of all the preparation and research you do to prepare for each session. This will be vital when it comes to marking essays or exams but also if you are asked to teach anything similar again.
Teaching something unfamiliar may have been a tortuous experience but for the sake of your career don’t let that show! Tell your head of department how much you enjoyed the challenge and have developed professionally from it. As with any job it is important to take any opportunity to show your flexibility and adaptability.
By keeping an open mind you will learn from your research in the new area and also from the comments of your students. Who knows, you may find a new area of interest that you want to work on, or at least gain a different perspective about the research you are doing currently.