After one year as a Visiting Assistant Professor


This is a guest post by Carrie Woods, a Visiting Assistant Professor at Colgate University. This is a follow up to her post from last year, about starting out in a VAP position.

I just completed my last lecture of my first year as a Visiting Assistant Professor at a liberal arts University. Each semester I got to design my own course and teach three lab sections of a general biology course called Ecology, Evolution, and Diversity. Having graduated in August 2013, this was my first experience in designing and teaching my own course and it was absolutely amazing.

I did stumble a bit at the beginning though. In the fall I taught Plant Physiology, a junior level course of my own design, and had a bumpy start trying to figure out how to teach. Given that all of my post-secondary education has been at research I universities, I assumed the most familiar teaching format I knew – standing in front of students, powerpoint up, throwing information and numbers at them. That was my first lecture. I blew through what I thought would take me three lectures in one hour.

Then I did what anyone in my position would have done: sought advice from fellow faculty. This is a top-notch liberal arts university after all, and I am surrounded by teaching gurus. Within a couple of hours and several meetings with different faculty post-first lecture, I completely changed how I thought about teaching. As per the advice of the faculty, I abandoned my powerpoints (except for complicated images and figures) and returned to the most basic method of teaching: the chalkboard.

My second lecture, I asked what they had learned from my first lecture and, after many mumbles and looks of confusion, I decided to start from scratch and re-teach the first lecture. I was honest and open about it and told them that if I was doing something that confused them, I wanted them to let me know. I used a socratic method and got them engaged and involved by asking questions constantly. I used the chalkboard to write and explain key concepts. The classroom transformed into an open and engaged learning environment. I was happier, my students were happier, and my teaching was way better. The learning curve wasn’t just steep, it was 180°!

Through my Masters and Ph.D., I had so many opportunities to TA courses as a graduate student that I realized my teaching skills were developed for running labs. So the lab sections of the biology course that I ran were much smoother than my Plant Phys course. I shadowed the faculty member who was the coordinator for the course, by which I mean I went to every MWF lecture and to her Monday lab so that my Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday afternoon labs went smoothly. Although it took quite a large time commitment, I learned a lot by doing this and incorporated the same questioning and engaging teaching methods from my classroom into the labs.

With new skills in hand and great feedback from my students in the fall, I designed a CORE science course on agriculture called Food for Thought this spring. By far, this has been my most rewarding teaching experience. The class is for freshmen and sophomores in any discipline. I only have three students from biology the rest being from varying departments – political science, economics, philosophy, English, and sociology. Students discovered biology through the history of agriculture and current farming practices. We examined environmental impacts of farming, GMOs, and had a continuous debate about the global food crisis and how to feed the world. This class (again!) taught me how to be an effective teacher because of the new challenge of teaching non-biology students. The course went so well that I have students knocking on my door asking if I could teach it again in the fall so they could take it. I am so touched.

I am so grateful to have had this experience. I am a much more effective and creative teacher and would recommend this job to anyone looking to better their teaching skills. I liked it so much that I have decided to stay for another year.

5 thoughts on “After one year as a Visiting Assistant Professor

  1. Awesome post, thanks so much for sharing your experience.

    Could you share some advice for how you transitioned from preparing materials based on giving a powerpoint to preparing for a chalkboard lecture?

    Did you really abandon the slides approach entirely? Didn’t the students complain?

    Do you write out everything on the board, i.e., not just drawing illustrations, but definitions and the like?

  2. I’d love to hear more about “Food For Thought”. What articles, books, or other media did you use? How did you structure the course (email me, if it is too complicated to convey here). I teach “Biological Inquiry” for which I usually have used “Into the Jungle” and talk evolution. But, talking about food and relating biology to ecology, agriculture, politics, etc. sounds totally fascinating!

  3. Thanks James. I did abandon the slides for the most part. When there were complicated images, I would use ppt, but I tried to draw most things on the board. As per a colleagues advice, I used sidewalk chalk so I would remember to write big with different colors.

    When transitioning to the chalkboard, I actually still made my powerpoint slides and used them as a guide. I put an outline of what we were covering on the board so they knew where the class was headed. My first time was a little messy with ideas scribbled everywhere so I began planning out my board space in order to effectively and clearly use it. For example, when I taught about essential nutrients, I organized the board so that I grouped all of the nutrients into different broad categories (macro, micro) and then into sub-categories (metabolism, redox reactions etc.). Then I went back and listed symptoms of nutrient deficiency and finally their mobility. I had to teach my students how to take their notes as well. So for the nutrient lecture, I told them in advance that I would be going back and adding to the information so to make space for that.

    I did write out definitions. Because Plant Phys isn’t necessarily intuitive, the course slowed down a lot with the chalkboard and gave the students time to ingest the material. My Food for Thought class worked better with more ppt slides because the information was more easily digested (ahem… pun intended).

    Hope that helps!

  4. Hi KB, I used all sorts of materials for this course. The book I used was Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan. I also used scientific articles and news articles on GMOs and studies comparing industrial to organic agriculture in terms of yields, environmental impacts, and the global food crisis. I used a lot of videos throughout the lecture on everything from soil development to human jaw evolution.

    I began with the history of agriculture and how it influenced human civilization and then went into corn as a case study for understanding plant physiology (e.g., photosynthesis of C4 grasses) and biotechnology (GMOs). I did an overview of current agricultural practices (industrial, organic, permaculture) and ended with environmental impacts (habitat loss, soil degradation, pollution, eutrophication, climate change).

    I would be happy to share my materials with you. Just email me:

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