Preparing A New Course VS. Impostor Syndrome

Ideally, developing a new course will entail excitement about all of the possible topics, readings, discussions, and assignments.  (I said “ideally,” ok?)  It usually does for me, but that little bit of uncertainty, which probably fuels others’ excitement, expands into all out impostor syndrome.  Unfortunately, that leads to a much longer and tortuous process, and sometimes continues to shape the course throughout the semester.  In this post, I hope to offer a few tips for others who may struggle with impostor syndrome, particularly while developing a new course.

The Impostor Professor

First, let me briefly give some personal background.  I taught two semesters, followed by a summer course at another university, during my third year of graduate school.  Thanks to a fellowship, I did not teach again until I started in my current position.  So, that is one year’s worth of teaching experience, followed by three years without teaching; in hindsight, being rusty and inexperienced, while adjusting to a new job and place was not ideal.  I did take two of the three courses that my graduate department offered toward a Preparing Future Faculty certificate.  I dropped the certificate because my plans for the final course’s project fell through, and I found no resistance to giving up all together.  But, I hear that those two courses are still more training that many scholars receive on teaching.  Still, I feel I was not adequately prepared to to hit the ground running in the classroom.

My process for developing new courses has been the same (i.e., a shit show).  I start by panicking — what could I possibly teach about X?!  Then, I collect and scour as many syllabi on X as I can find on the internet and from colleagues who are willing to share.  Using these as models, I narrow down the topics of each lecture, and then the assigned readings, based on what it seems are the core subjects.  In the back of my head, I know that about 25% of the topics have never crossed my mind, so I will have to prepare those lectures from scratch (i.e., learning about it first, then frantically deciding what I will teach).  Indeed, those days bring stress and anxiety right on schedule.  “I do not know the first thing about this subject/don’t care!”  Panic.  Then, search for documentaries; then, relevant activities.  If all of the above fail, I can turn to discussion or group work.  No surprise, these classes are hit or miss.  And, the classes that go ok actually feel as though I got lucky.  Ok or awful, I usually return to my office after class feeling unqualified or incompetent, and may or may not fight the tears that threaten to come.

Source of Self-Doubt

I attempted to change my approach when preparing for this semester’s courses over the summer.  The biggest, semi-successful change was to start course preparations earlier in the summer, rather than waiting until August.  I planned to flip my fall and spring schedules: spend at least an hour on teaching in the morning, and devote the rest of the day to research.  That did not quite happen, but I got an early start.

The other change was to devote at least some time in the course on topics I study, find interesting, and/or am passionate about.  I did, but, because I still started out using textbooks and others’ syllabi as my guide for the core subjects.  Half of the first draft of my syllabus for my Medical Sociology course contained subjects I know/care little about.  When a colleague challenged me to focus more on the course I want to teach, two sources of my self-doubt were revealed.

First, which I have already noted, is setting a standard that my new course must meet.  I start the preparation process by letting others’ expertise (or so I assume) dictate what I should teach.  Thus, I create a challenge for myself to push my expertise to reach others’ standards.  At an unconscious level, I fear that others will look at my syllabi and deem them unacceptable or sub-par, and dismiss my expertise on the subject.  I never start out asking my own expert self, “what should I teach — what are the most important topics and what skills do I want my students to learn?”

The second source, which surprised me, was a fear that letting my passions and interests guide the preparation would lead me to a course deemed biased or “too activist” by other scholars.  For my Medical Sociology course, I initially hesitated to give more than a day to LGBTQ health because no other instructor or textbook gave even a passing reference to LGBTQ communities (though, maybe in their coverage of HIV/AIDS).  Could I justify a lecture on sexual orientation and health, and another on transgender health?  My colleague reminded me that, if I decide against covering trans health in my course, my students will likely leave college never learning about it (or trans communities in general!).  I am guilty of letting what I deem as the mainstream standard trump my interest in teaching students about LGBTQ issues, and intersectionality, and fatphobia, and sexual health, etc.!  If including these subjects is “too activist,” then excluding them is reproducing the status quo of higher education.  It is my duty, in my humble opinion, as an educator to introduce my students to these systematically overlooked communities and issues.

Excusing Impostor Syndrome From Class

From my inexperienced, still self-doubting perspective, I offer the following tips for developing new courses:

  1. Remember that you are an expert.  At a minimum for some instructors, this means finding confidence in knowing that you know more about the material than your students.  Even if it is brand new to you, you have developed skills to be able to teach anything (within reason)!  In a pinch, you probably have a few tools in your teaching toolkit: class or small group discussion, activities, in-class assignments, documentaries, relevant current events, etc.
  2. Start course preparations from your expertise.  Academic freedom, y’all!  That is, assuming you were not assigned to teach a course that is far outside of your expertise.  One approach that helped me as I finally crafted a Medical Sociology syllabus that actually reflected my areas of expertise was to jot down all of the topics that I knew I could teach at that moment with little preparation.  My list did not exhaust the number of days in the semester, but it came pretty close.
  3. Be practical — start choosing readings from what you have already read.  One mistake I often made was searching for the readings — what are the articles that I kept seeing on others’ syllabi?  Sure, there may be some classical pieces that you really should assign.  But, the others could be contemporary examples, or counterarguments, or even personal narratives.  By letting others’ models dictate what I should assign, I added to my frantic lecture prep days the task of reading all of the articles that I assigned that I had never read before.
  4. Start course preparations from your passion.  Let go of the myth of the dispassionate, objective instructor.  Embrace what you know you could talk about for 75 minutes straight.  Your passion may rub off on your students, and their piqued interest will further fuel yours.  If not, at least you will avoid the combination of not caring about the topic and seeing bored faces before you for 75 minutes.
  5. STOP using others as a model, at least from the beginning.  If you can, maybe check out what other instructors cover if you are stumped on the last few topics to cover or readings to assign.  If many instructors go through this same fumbling, impostor syndrome-fuelded course preparation process, we probably cannot trust others’ courses to serve as a model.  One major mistake I made was to attempt to replicate the breadth-focused approach of courses taught at research-intensive courses; my institution would prefer I cover fewer subjects, but in-depth.  Another mistake I have made is using seasoned scholars’ courses as a standard to achieve — people who have been teaching as long as I have been alive, with ample opportunities to perfect their courses.  It is a simple (and expected) fact: this new course will be shitty the first time, but I can improve it in future semesters.  Finally, I do myself and my students a disservice by using “traditional” (i.e., exclusive) approaches; I have an opportunity to model for my students (and maybe other instructors) that certain topics are relevant and important for a course.
  6. Ease up on self-evaluation.  Course evaluations come at the end of the course, not the beginning.  And, yes, while they are imperfect (and somewhat biased), their purpose is to give feedback to improve the courses for the next time you teach them.  It will not be perfect the first time — or ever, really.  And, improvement as an instructor is valued (e.g., tenure and promotion)!  Hopefully, you will start out with your own syllabus and setup an exciting semester, with room for improvement in following semesters, rather than setting up a test of your qualifications.
  7. Become a better teacher.  At a minimum, ask a friend or trusted colleague to observe one of your classes, and offer feedback afterward.  In turn, attend her class so that you can see another model for teaching.  (It seems what makes this hardest is that we teach in a vacuum, never seeing what other people do in the classroom!)  If you have to be observed for formal evaluations, plan to have someone who will not evaluate you observe your class before these formal observations.  Attend on-campus workshops about teaching and pedagogy, as well as local and national teaching conferences.  It can be refreshing to realize so many instructors struggle with self-doubt about teaching.

That is all I have for now.  Please offer other teaching suggestions either as a comment, or even a guest blog post!

13 thoughts on “Preparing A New Course VS. Impostor Syndrome

  1. This is a great post. I’ve definitely been guilty of worrying that teaching about LGBTQ issues “too much” would be somehow inappropriate, especially in broader survey courses. However, most student response has been incredibly positive, especially since so few professors teach about these issues. I’ve come to realize that many, more senior faculty members agree that LGBTQ issues are interesting and important, but many exclude them from the syllabus because they lack the expertise (or feel that they do).

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    • You know, that’s a good point. My colleagues have been pretty explicit in reminding me I was hired to bring those perspectives to my classes. It seems I’m the only one getting in the way of that now.

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  2. So much of what you have written reflects my experience of the first couple of years of teaching. For me a big turning point was realizing that I was so hung up on trying to teach the discipline that I had forgotten that the point was to teach the students. Once I put them in the center of the teaching equation, I realized that as insecure as I might be feeling, the students were feeling a hundred times more insecure. Once you put the students in the center of the classroom it becomes a place for human interaction instead of intellectual performance. Thanks for your post!

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  3. Reading this in advance of my spring 2015 imposter syndrome returning…thanks!

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  4. Thank you for the post. There’s a line to walk between learning from others’ syllabi (let’s not reinvent the wheel) and using those syllabi as a crutch that prevents you from walking on your own, just as there’s a line between teaching what you know and love, and being a one-trick pony who makes every class about their pet issues. It’s related to the challenges of striking a balance between engaging with a narrower area in our research, or broader area of the discipline.

    Your point about including LGTBQ issues in a class (if you don’t teach it, then students might never have it in a class) really speaks to me, as I feel the same way about my areas. In times like this, we need to remember that we were hired presumably because someone wants us to share our perspectives with students. But when you’re on the market, you also feel pressured to conform …

    Great post, as always.

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    • That’s a fair point. One mistake I’ve made, though, is letting others syllabi serve as a directive rather than a model. I fail to remember that they may have made the same mistake, and so I’m setting myself up to fail (if they did). Certainly, there are some topics that you can’t get away with excluding, but there are many more that are up to us than I think we initially realize in preparing new courses.

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  5. Reblogged this on Ricky De La Torre and commented:
    If only I had read this a month ago before I created those two new classes for work. It is on point, describing how panicked I felt creating the class, and I ever took the same steps. Reading the tips at the end of this post was like a series of “Duh!!” revelations. It all seems so obvious in hindsight. At least now I de finitely know better for next time.

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    • Can I just say…I’ve been teaching for over 20 years and still experience this stuff…? And it’s truly a gift to have things like the Internet…with blogs and sites and our ability to share these things to help one another. Better late than never for me!

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  6. I came home tonight after attending a faculty meeting for a new teaching job I have accepted. I literally remembered reading this article and knew that If I re-read it I could be reminded that the “monster within” that has been eating away at my self esteem today- is really imposter syndrome. I am just amazed at how a new course prep ( a class on race and racism) can bring up so much of my own internalized oppression INSTANTLY. Your advice here is really on point- especially your thoughts on starting from a place of expertise and also excitement. Thank you for writing this piece- you name so many of the intersections of gender, race and sexuality that surface for me as I begin to take on a role within a new institution.

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    • Wow, thanks for sharing that. I wish you well on preparing your new courses. It’s a struggle because we’re not regularly validated as experts — counteracting the ways in which our existence in the academy as marginalized scholars isn’t a given, isn’t visible, isn’t respected — and, for some, we’re also regularly
      “presumed incompetent” (to quote the important text of that same name). Pull the validation from within. And, if I may make a suggestion, create a supportive community in your new department to help “feed your soul” or, at a minimum, validate your existence and expertise. You deserve it.

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