Now that you got the academic position – What next?

We are now approaching the end of the year, and attention has shifted to the next year. Barring unexpected departures, most departments have probably now concluded their hires for the next year. And as for you, congratulations if you are one of those who have secured your first academic position. You should give yourself a pat on the back. After all, you have made it ahead of at least seventy other competitors who applied for the same role.

By now your new department will have been in touch with you to discuss your teaching for the next year. You would have demonstrated in the interviews both your passion and your growing expertise in engineering education practice. Naturally, you will be eager to demonstrate and cement your position as an innovative teacher who aspires to excellence. A word of advice, however: teaching quality can be highly subjective, and excellence in education is context-dependent. So before you rush ahead to implementing all the whistles and bells that you can think of in your education practice, you need to first consider the following three questions:

  • What exactly is it that you will be teaching?
  • Who exactly will you be teaching?
  • Who else will be teaching with you?

What exactly is  it that you will be teaching?

Your new Head of Department may have contacted you to tell you of the good news. They will also have discussed with you the course modules that you will be teaching. However, it’s not just that you will be teaching some specific course module, like Maths101, Fundamentals of Engineering 103 or some other course unit. Even if you may already have some experience delivering these course modules, and you are confident that you will do a good job, you really need to delve deeper into the exact course content that you need to deliver.

Engineering departments are not all the same. They have different missions, and different teaching philosophies, beliefs and values. You may have heard that there is a visible curriculum, and there is a hidden curriculum.  The two are not necessarily the same, and what matters most is the hidden curriculum. It is this hidden curriculum that is in tune with the goals and aspirations of the department, and  the one that determines the specific topics that you should cover, the depth that you are expected to go in each topic, as well as how exactly you are to assess the students.

Degree programmes normally comprise course modules that feed into each other, or that provide knowledge and skill sets that are designed to complement each other. In this way,  module units help to achieve a coherent set of learning outcomes at each level of the degree programme. In practice, the written down syllabus does not provide the whole story. A lot of assumptions, implied and non-implied go into the development of a degree programme. It is your duty to find out all this, and then work out what you need to deliver in your assigned course module. Start talking to people within the department, and go through the historical records of your assigned course modules.

Who exactly will you be teaching?

Again, students are not all the same. Different universities tend to attract different types of students. As a result, students attending a particular university may have expectations that are quite different from those attending some other university. For instance, students at a highly selective, traditional university may have been primed for highly mathematical and theoretical content. They may even be expecting “the sage on the stage” approach to teaching, together with the traditional exam-oriented assessment format. They may even be more focussed on the mark they are going to get, and not necessarily on what they actually learn in your class. In such a situation, rushing to implement fancy stuff like team-based, collaborative learning may serve only to alienate them from your teaching.

On the other hand, more innovative, forward-looking universities usually attract students who are keen to experience “real” engineering practice. Such students usually expect a hands-on, design-based approach that integrates theory and practice. In such an environment, adopting a hands-off “sage on the stage” approach is likely to hasten your departure from the university.

Who else will be teaching with you?

You need to find out quickly the nature of your soon-to-be colleagues. Are they conservative and suspicious of any innovations in education practice? Or are they open to new ideas in education, and enthusiastic enough to experiment with the new? Or are they somewhere in between? You need to style your teaching accordingly. If you must innovate, only do so when you have gained your colleagues’ respect. You may be eager to get good student feedback, but if this ends up exposing your colleagues’ not-so-good teaching, you will have no-one to thank you. Instead, your excellent teaching may be cruelly re-cast as some form of dumbing down, or worse. On the other hand, there may be colleagues in your new department who are passionate about their education practice. If this is the case, get to know them, learn from them and partner with them in the noble goal of ensuring good departmental education practice.

Concluding remarks

How then should you conduct yourself in the first few months and weeks of your new academic career? Simple, if the department is conservative, then tread carefully, gain the respect of your colleagues and students, engage them in discussions on education practice. Think carefully through any changes that you wish to make, and establish a consensus amongst both students and academics alike. If you must make changes to the curriculum, or to your own education practice, then consider going first for those changes guaranteed to generate positive outcomes with high visibility. Then, as you win support, you can go on to implementing bolder changes. If, on the other hand, your department has a culture of innovation and excellence in education, then tuck in, and learn as much as you can, and studiously incorporate this learning into your own practice.

Either way, let the pursuit of excellence in education practice be your primary goal. Expand your networks with other like-minded engineering educators, both within your institution and elsewhere. Take every opportunity to learn about engineering education, and don’t shy away from teaching others as well. Be an engaged member of your department when it comes to matters relating to education and the student experience. Do this consistently, and over time, you will  become an integral member of both your  department and the world-wide community of engineering educators.  Then you will become established in higher education.


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