Developing a Brand New Class

For the past several semesters, the primary class I was teaching was a well-established course in our department that had long been a requirement for students in several majors. When I started, I was able to ask professors that had already been teaching the class what types of assessments they used, what types of issues they ran into, and even to see examples of their syllabi and online course structures.

This semester, I have the honor of teaching a brand new class. Brand new to the department, to the university, and thus, to me. This class will be required for all new students entering the major, and so it is important to introduce them to some overarching concepts without overwhelming them with information that is too advanced for their place in the program. I've spent the past month or so working intensely on crafting a syllabus, arranging guest speakers, and preparing assignments, and I have compiled some tips based on this experience. 

1. Be flexible. Even when teaching established classes, I think it is important to have the capacity to change the class to respond to student needs. Not only did I make adjustments through each semester in previous courses (as every class has its own dynamic), but over the course of the 2 years I taught my previous primary class, I changed several major aspects of the class based on student feedback and my understanding of how the students were responding to the material. When starting a class from scratch, I think it is important to provide a blueprint for the semester, but to be willing to gauge student response and adjust accordingly. Are they really interested in a particular topic? Is something especially puzzling for them? If so, I might want to spend a little longer with those issues. Am I trying to teach them something its clear they already know, or that might be too advanced for them? Then I might want to back off these topics.

2. Be creative. I would hope that creativity is something that all professors bring to their teaching, regardless of context. That said, I think when teaching a new class, you are given a significant advantage in a way; there is no pre-set notion of what the class should be like that might color your perception of how the class should look/feel. My department is giving me nearly complete freedom to present and assess the class as I see fit, based on the course objectives. Thus, I am creating assessments that will challenge students; that will make them consider aspects of the topic they might not have considered; that will set them up to be prepared for the courses they will take in later semesters. Of course, some things will fail, and I'm okay with that. 

3. Set a precedent. Students talk. Rest assured that before a student enters your class, they have likely talked to others about you, the class, the assignments, what the final was like, etc. This can be both a blessing and a curse; students have an idea of what to expect, but they can have preconceptions about you and the course (i.e., whether they expect to like either). Teaching a brand new class is a unique experience in that students have no reputation to rely on- sure, they might have heard things about you as an instructor in other classes, but each specific course has its own dynamic and structure. In that sense, when you are introducing a brand new class to a department (specifically, one that will continue to be taught, not something like a seminar that might only be taught once), you need to establish a precedent for the class. Sure, you might choose to change topics or assignments in future semesters (part of being flexible), based on experience, but you want students to have a pretty good idea of what the purpose of the class is, how rigorous it is, and the general topic areas that will be covered. Again, you don't have to stick to this "as is" forever, but you shouldn't set the course up so that it can shift dramatically from semester to semester.

4. Be patient. That unbelievably creative assignment you put together? The students hate it. That fascinating lecture you spent hours researching? Garnered you nothing but sleepy eyes and faces buried in phones. The guest speaker that took weeks of pestering to convince to come speak? Half the class didn't show. Inevitably, not everything you try for the first time in any course is going to work, but in a new course especially, you have to be very open about how some of your new assessments are going to work. Students don't care about what the latest and greatest pedagogical trend is- if it doesn't work for the particular group you have in front of you, or the specific course you are teaching, you need to be willing to throw it out and try something else. Most importantly, you have to be willing to do so with a positive and optimistic demeanor. Students are very perceptive. You can't try to sell them the attitude of "try, try again" if you yourself don't have it.

I'm only at the end of week 2 of this new course, and so far, so good, but I'm keeping my eyes open and trying to get a sense for how things are going based on the types of questions I'm getting and how students are responding to the assignments thus far. I'll let you know how it turns out!