1.1 University Teaching

Lindsay R. Parker


If you know you want to be an academic and teach, you should first re-examine what brought you to this point in life. Because, let’s face it, it’s not for the money. After that, building a teaching repertoire is essential. If you haven’t yet taught a class, don’t worry. This is an excellent time to begin your preparations in earnest. For example, if you have a grad class on Wilde’s Mr. Worthing, keep those notes and think of how you might resume them in a different context – you’ll find Wilde’s Earnest in virtually all anthologies for first year literature courses, and you don’t want to improvise your teaching notes for a text you’ve already worked on or that you’ve been taught by an expert. If your own professor has a great joke about Sir Fopling Flutter in The Man of Mode – or even if it’s a bad joke but it fills time – jot it down for future theft in English 101.

For those of us who are already teaching, I can’t emphasise how crucial it is to prepare your course ideas in advance in order to give you more time to contemplate lecture development, media presentations, order course reserve selections and so forth. There’s also the inevitable late night inspiration, literary or liquid in origin, that sets the best intentions to naught – if you’ve got lecture notes ready, you won’t face class both tired and unprepared. It’s also tempting to teach new works each term or yearn for a new novel when you repeat yet another section of first year composition – keep that inspiration and creativity but direct it to the dissertation. Your students are in the class for the first time, so last year’s readings are all brand new for them, and you don’t want to face building lecture notes on a new novel after yet another night of “liquiterary inspiritation”…

The Syllabus

Your first time teaching, even your first year in graduate classes, is about preparing syllabuses for future courses, even if you’re only doing your classes. After all, who would have better ideas on a particular text than those teaching them to graduate students? Sure, you won’t teach Derrida’s “Supplement to Copula” in the Composition I sequence, nor will your 17-year-old students fresh from high school want to say much about pre-linguistic philosophy, but you’ll probably end up teaching the same literary texts that you’re reading for your own classes. In fact, you should. Why prepare new lecture notes when Endowed Chair XYZ already gave you perfectly good notes for your grad seminar on the same novel? I recommend keeping a notebook just for teaching ideas (or files on your hard drive) as well as starting to put together assignments and authors, readings, etc. When you see a teaching moment, write it down for future use when you pretend to improvise in the classroom. If you have an unmarked copy of an article that could be put toward a course pack, save all the necessary bibliographic entries and scan it to pdf through your local photocopier. Saving these in files now avoids the frantic last-minute search as well as the wasted time spent finding the full citation for CANcopy or other authoritarian agencies that don’t want you to use scholarship in classes if you can’t send the 35-cent copyright cheque to the duly appointed corporate manager.

The Dream Syllabus

Even if you aren’t given your dream courses, you are going to be asked what they would look like. Keep notes as you go along. Also, don’t forget that if you’re on the sessional/adjunct market for a time during or after the PhD, many schools want course proposals more than they want your CV. Sure, you’ve got that groundbreaking article forthcoming in a major journal that distributes upwards of three dozen copies worldwide, but no one will care much about its earth-shaking revelations on Wyndham Lewis’ humanitarian anagnorisis – they’ll want to see your sample syllabus. Have one ready, or at least don’t set yourself up for another late night of “liquiterary inspiritation” trying to think it all through. Have the notes ready to hand.

Be Well-Rounded

Yes, you need to know your field, but when you leave your PhD program, people won’t hire you because of your brilliance alone. They’ll want to know you can be a colleague with whom they can share “liquiterary inspiritation” from time to time as well as other generally human activities. Remember, writing a dissertation is not normally a “human” activity . . . Do you sing? Can you play the cello? Do you have family or pets? In fact, is there anything in your life after grad school apart from the “spirited” dissertation? 

Other Notebooks

Face it, we read. Prodigiously. Voraciously. But we also forget the books we’ve read. Get used to this because later in life you’ll call it a senior moment, but it will already be familiar from grad school . . . Idea: pick up a notebook just for listing the books you’ve read (or are reading or are pretending to read) and perhaps also another one for articles (only those you pretend to read). Those bibliography programs are great, but you can spend as much time toying with the possibilities as you do entering your information. A notebook will do, and you don’t need to consult a user manual. If you do, you’re obviously not reading this “In the Field” either.

Why is All of This Important?

Well, depending on which institution you apply to, they’ll likely want to know if you’re a good scholar, if you can teach, and whether or not they can get along with you until the day you’re either denied tenure or you get tenure and vow not to leave until you enter a nursing home. Hiring committees might not list those priorities in that order either.

To Sum Up: Two Ideas, Two Books

You’ll want to have two types of notebooks, perhaps even different colours, but none of those “green silk” or “brown leather” notebooks you find in bookstores that don’t really sell books. Cheap and cheerful will do. Fill those with two ideas: things I might teach and things I might read. Those notebooks will obviously develop more than the actual syllabuses or “finished” book piles, but at least you’ll be ready to teach the book before you get around to reading it.

Lastly, try out a fountain pen. They might not be as practical, but you can’t press hard, and that’s going to save you from Carpal Tunnel Syndrome a few years down the road. You can play with the ink too, and that really ought to be the most important liquid during grad school…




Lindsay R. Parker is a PhD Candidate in the Comparative Literature Program at the University of Alberta. She currently teaches in World Literature at Simon Fraser University, as well as Literature and Interdisciplinary courses at Fairleigh Dickinson University-Vancouver. She is co-editor of Autumn Gleamings, Theodore Stephanides’ island memoir of Corfu, and the author of forthcoming articles on Constantine Cavafy and Lawrence Durrell. 



Inquire: Journal of Comparative Literature

Brought to you by Graduate Students from the Program in Comparative Literature
at the University of Alberta

ISSN 1923-5879
Email: inquire [at] ualberta.ca

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