Friday, January 11, 2013

Should you teach this proposed new course?

Probably not.

Universities and colleges love introducing new courses, whether it is "Financial mathematics", "Bioinformatics", "Philosophy of Physics" or "Current trends in nanotechnology"?

Should un-tenured faculty get involved in these enterprises?

Over the years I have seen many such ventures and been involved in some at a range of institutions. Often these proposals are driven by a departments desire to boost student numbers, particularly by attracting students from other majors and programs. Thus, many of the offerings are cross-disciplinary and so involve more than one department.
Often attempts are made to recruit un-tenured faculty or research staff to help teach or start these courses, with a vague promise that if it goes well there may be a permanent job associated with it.

There is a simple question that can be asked to determine whether or not you should get involved:
Is there any department or major which will make it compulsory for their students to take the course?

To make this explicit. For a course in financial mathematics: will it be compulsory for mathematics or finance/economics/business majors?

If the answer is yes. Then the course may be viable.
Usually the answer is no.
This may mean the course will struggle to attract significant student numbers. It will not be a big money (or goodwill) generator for your department. The course may then gradually die out. Furthermore, who will be to blame? Not, the senior faculty member who enthusiastically proposed the course. Rather, probably the junior faculty who spent all the time developing it and teaching it to small classes.


  1. What if an untenured professor is interested in developing new courses themselves? Should that wait until after tenure, when they have more teaching experience under their belt anyway?

    1. It depends on how supportive the department is of the proposed new course.
      I don't think lack of experience should preclude proposing and teaching new courses. Energy and enthusiasm can be a good thing. But, it does need to be tempered with the realism that comes from experience. Thus, consulting with senior colleagues for feedback is a good idea, both about content and the likelihood of student interest.

  2. I'd say it depends on the situation. We generally let our untenured people do a special topic course especially if they can tie it into their research. This has the advantage that they can recruit more students into their group and the additional bonus that they can tie it into their NSF CAREER proposal which has a mandatory teaching/outreach/education component. But, usually these are one-time or 2-3 time offerings. I've never seen one emerge as a long-lived offering. Which is fine, the idea behind a special topic course is that it's a SPECIAL topic course.

  3. Thanks for the comment Eric.
    This is a good point. It certainly does depend on the situation.
    Clearly you describe a local environment which is supportive of young faculty developing new graduate courses.

    My post was more concerned with undergraduate courses that are inter-disciplinary and where departmental expectations may be unrealistic.

  4. Beware the specialized long-lived offering. I know from experience that if you create a course or courses that can only be taught well by a small subset of your faculty, and you do so in a way where you are committed to teaching them annually in perpetuity, it can be problematic.