At the start of your academic career, you will be asked to teach, with little preparation time, on large survey courses that include subjects outside your specialism. You may never have studied these as a student, let alone taught them!
But this can also happen as a more senior scholar, for example when you move jobs and are asked to slot in and cover someone else’s teaching. So, what do you do when you have little knowledge of the subject you’ve been asked to teach? Some scholars simply refused to do this in the past, but in such a competitive job market and with collegiality highly prized, I would suggest that refusal is a bad strategy! Here are some tips on how to cope.
Is teaching material available for this course already?
When you are short of time and have to learn unfamiliar material, don’t duplicate work. Ask members of your department, or the unit leader, or your teaching mentor whether there are materials available for you to use. Most scholars are very generous with their notes, especially for those who are teaching outside their specialism. Even if you decide you don’t want to copy the lecture or seminar material exactly, at least it can act as a guide as you prepare your own.
Do you know an expert in the area?
If there is no teaching material available for you at your own university, why not ask a friend who works elsewhere? He or she might have run a similar course and have materials that you could borrow. Or at the very least they will suggest some useful places to start reading. Use your network!
Keep things simple
As with all teaching, it is vital not to over-prepare. If it is taking you several days to write one lecture, or many hours to prepare for one seminar, you are probably doing too much. Students often complain of receiving information with too much detail, and so they will appreciate it if you distil your lessons down to the crucial points in the field. This lightens your load too.
Remember, you’re not trying to become an expert in the area; you’re just learning enough to teach it to others. Using online resources can cut down the preparation time too. You can prepare for class on the train or in the gym; there is no need to spend a long time in the library painstakingly researching.
It’s OK just to be one step ahead!
Of course it’s ideal to be very familiar with the material that you teach, in reality this often isn’t possible. Focus on what you are confident with and don’t worry about the gaps in your knowledge. Lecturers and seminar tutors often say that it is OK to go into the classroom as long as you know just a little bit more than your students. After all, you’re trying to guide their learning and not prove what a genius you are!
May inexperienced tutors are concerned that there will be questions from students that they can’t answer. Don’t worry; you can turn it into a learning experience for them. Ask the rest of the class to comment on the question. If that doesn’t generate a satisfactory response, then assign the question for homework. Done cleverly, you need never admit you did not know the answer yourself!