From Professional to Professor

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Ten years ago I felt a powerful pull from the halls of academia to give back to my profession, to share my years of knowledge and experience with young people just starting out. I fantasized about ivy covered buildings and holding court in cool coffee houses as students hinged on my every word.

Soon after, I was fortunate enough to make the transition from professional to professor when I was hired by Michigan State University (Go Green!) to teach in their School of Journalism. MSU does have its share of ivy covered buildings and coffee shops, and yes, young people have hinged on my every word, but more often when discussing their grades!

Over the years, I've learned a few things about the craft of teaching and have watched my student evaluations get increasingly better until, in 2013, I was given the Faculty Impact Award by my college. Here then, for those of you who find yourself making a similar transition, are are a few considerations that might help you going in. (Readers, please add your own best practices in the comments below.)

GET EXPERIENTIAL: Theory is a fine thing to know, but students will really "get it" if they can put that theory into practice. If, for instance, you're teaching an advertising class, then work with actual clients in the field. These experiences can be simpler, too, and fun. A math class, for instance, might build 3D models out of cardboard. In my large class on creativity, I've thrown out several beach balls and watched 500 students gleefully bat them around until they were bored and wondering what was next. This was simply to drive home the point. Then I'd say, "This illustrates that good ideas have a shelf life and new ones are needed all the time."

NURTURE CREATIVITY: When I first started teaching, I had the mindset, "Copy what I say and do and you'll get a job." But mini-me clones is not what higher learning is all about; it's about building confident, competent and unique thinkers, so better to teach them skills and theory and let them work it out for themselves through assignments, discussion and critique. Your classroom should be a creative space where new ideas are encouraged. Be aware that students desperately want to earn a 4.0, which means many will abandon their own ideas just to please you, something that's not exactly conducive to creative thinking. Explore ways to minimize that tendency while nurturing their creative abilities.

CONNECT AND COLLABORATE: Reach out to other faculty and ask for help. Most of them have wrestled with the same things you might be and will be happy to advise you. The real world is collaborative and multidisciplinary, so while you're talking with a professor, see if there might be ways for your two classes to collaborate on projects, and don't limit these collaborations to just your college. I teamed my infographics class up with a medical class. Working together, the medical students provided content and my students created infographics that explained their data. Also, invite your professional contacts to Skype into or visit your class, or even better, take your students on a field trip to visit them.

PLAN YOUR COURSE WELL: Students get frustrated when a class is disorganized or doesn't match the syllabus, which is a contract between you and them. Universities have rules about what should be in them, so find out what they are. If you say your class has 500 points worth of assignments and then later change it to 600 points, that can really mess with their heads and worse, their grades. When crafting your curriculum, think about how it relates to the real world and make sure it matches the learning outcomes the students were promised in the catalog description. Include a semester calendar in your syllabus that lists what students will do each class, and include homework.

BE ENGAGING: If you have 10 or so students on Facebook in a class of 200, that's not terribly unusual. But if 100 students in that class are on their phones, then you've got an engagement and relevance problem. Ask yourself what learning opportunities present themselves by having students all together in a room. Is it to hear you drone on and on, discussing bullet point after painful bullet point? Hopefully not! Better to assign them to watch your lecture later on YouTube and instead have lively discussions, brainstorm solutions together, form competitive teams, role play and engage in other interactive group activities. Be lively and excited to be there. Tie your lessons to issues and topics your students know and care about and stay relevant by keeping up with the latest trends, technology and thinking going on in your industry.

"SEE" YOUR STUDENTS: Teaching isn't about you, it's about the students. Realize that they come from different backgrounds, are wonderfully imperfect and have varied interests, intelligences, personalities and capabilities, all of which shape them into the wildly interesting and unique people sitting before you. Many are still unsure of what they want to do in life and are working hard to figure that out, so help them. Beware of focusing your attentions on the more skillful students in your class; teach to the whole class. You're a passionate, emotional human being, and so are your students, so don't hide that side of you from them. You're teaching them more than the subject in the course guide, you're teaching them how to be professional adults.

CARE: I've found that the more students feel you care about them, the more they will go the extra mile on assignments. So, let them see that it matters to you that they understand the material by offering to go over it again for them. Express disappointment (not anger) when the work they turned in didn't live up to your expectations, encourage better work and be proud of them for doing well. Talk to them individually and ask them to come to your office hours just to hang out, something many students are too intimidated to do. One of the nicest things a student ever said about me in an evaluation was "Even though there were 500 students in my class I felt like I was the only one he was talking to." I attribute that to caring.

EVALUATE FAIRLY: Give students multiple opportunities to succeed and fail.
I have found that it's better to break larger assignments down into smaller, graded tasks rather than merely grading the big end product. This helps students stay on track with the project, and it also gives them multiple opportunities to make adjustments along the way as you evaluate their progress. This increases the likelihood of success at the end. Also, ask yourself how useful tests and quizzes are. A math quiz makes some sense; a teacher needs to know that their students can do the math. But is it important that your students memorize an obscure date and then regurgitate it on a quiz? How is that helping them be better?

All in all, try to have a sense of humor as you learn and grow. After telling another professor about the beach ball assignment I mentioned above, he warily asked me what the "pedagogical value of having students do that" was. I answered that as soon as I looked up the word 'pedagogical' I would get back to him!