Want to Be a Better Instructor? Teach Something You Don’t Know


A few months after I received my university’s undergraduate teaching award in 2009, my classroom anxiety dreams went from merely hairy to absolutely hair-raising. For years, I’d dreamed about my classes erupting in chaos: rebellious students flipping over desks, watching pornography while I lectured, or—most frighteningly—ignoring me completely, choosing loud conversations with peers over listening for whatever wisdom I might impart.

Those dreams were the result of my subconscious working through fears that had dogged my teaching career, fears about unruly students upending my weak façade of competency. But after I won a teaching award—which affirmed that I might be competent after all—my department chair started showing up in my nocturnal visions, demanding that I teach courses for which I lacked any preparation: a general biology class one night, a Spanish class the next. In my dreams I always said yes, as I am a people pleaser even when asleep. But then all kinds of hell would break loose; it turns out that if you don’t speak Spanish, teaching Spanish can be exceedingly difficult. 

Sometimes dreams do come true. This past year my chair asked me to teach a class not in my discipline. Not Spanish, thank goodness, but something still outside my usual range of journalism and nonfiction courses. Because we are a small department, because a colleague was going on sabbatical, because I liked reading contemporary world literature—for all these reasons, I got lassoed into teaching our department’s survey course on 20th- and 21st-century global literature. Or maybe not lassoed, but my chair asked, and I couldn’t help but say yes, my people-pleasing habit complicating my life once again.

In the weeks before the semester started, I put together a syllabus based on what my colleague had already done for the course, my own reading tastes, and my pedagogical training in composition, well aware that teaching writing and teaching literature often require different approaches. And on the first day of class, sweat trickling down my back, I decided to be honest rather than bluff, telling students that the course was not in my disciplinary wheelhouse and that we would be learning about contemporary world literature together. That I would be grading their efforts, and they would be evaluating mine, was just an unfortunate dynamic of our shared journey.

Teaching the course was rough, to say the least. I spent significantly more time preparing for it than for my other courses combined: trying to understand reading assignments, researching the context for each author’s work, creating PowerPoint presentations and in-class activities that would help students comprehend the work they’d read (or, at least, that they were supposed to have read). During class I felt consistently on edge, wary that the next student’s question about the text would be my undoing; and I felt consistently relieved when each period ended, because I’d survived, again. Walking back to my office, I imagined myself skipping and twirling with jubilation, much as George Constanza does in my favorite episode of Seinfeld.

And then the semester was over. We had all survived. Students’ evaluations suggested they had enjoyed the course, developed an appreciation for non-Western writers, and sharpened their worldviews, all outcomes I’d hoped for—not only for my students but also for myself. After 20 years as a professor, I also learned a great deal in teaching a subject unfamiliar to me, both about the subject itself and, more broadly, about the college classroom.

Teaching a subject I didn’t know well actually made me a better teacher for a number of reasons.

First, teaching a new subject required me to use different pedagogical tools. My teaching strategies have always served me well in writing classes, and I’ve become accustomed to relying on those strategies without taking time to learn new approaches. Teaching course content that was unfamiliar to me challenged me to expand my pedagogical toolbox, and I spent significant time looking online and in teaching journals for different ways to deliver content, facilitate discussions about texts, and keep students engaged with the difficult work they were reading. Some of the new strategies I employed in the literature class informed my planning for other classes, challenging me to step beyond my comfort zone and try something new. As a result I am no doubt a better teacher; no longer content with the safest, easiest, and most predictable classroom methods.

Second, teaching a new subject demanded that I be less complacent. Let’s face it: after teaching the same basic load for 20 years, it’s easy to become complacent. I have electronic files for my class plans going back to 2003, and while I generally revise my syllabi each semester, those files serve as a convenient safety net, especially on those days when planning time is limited. Teaching new material meant developing a clear road map for each day’s class and then following that road map closely as my students and I navigated the unfamiliar terrain. This challenge to my complacency actually modified how I taught my other courses.

Third, teaching a new subject gave me empathy for my students. It’s been more than 30 years since I was an undergraduate just trying to get through each day’s homework. Teaching new material sharpened my insight into the challenges my students face. Many of the reading assignments were new to me, just as they were to my students, giving us all the opportunity to encounter texts together for the first time. As I struggled to comprehend a Japanese novelist or wondered about the cultural contexts that fueled the angst of a Russian poet, I gained empathy for my students, who were no doubt struggling as well with what we read. Often during in-class discussions as I watched my students grapple with a text, its meaning just beyond their reach, I gained renewed respect for my students’ hard cognitive efforts, recognizing as well that I don’t always appreciate young minds at work.

Finally, teaching a new subject gave me renewed respect for my colleagues. I appreciate my faculty colleagues, and know they work hard in their respective disciplines. But I really have no idea what that work looks like. Teaching a literature course gave me a clear sense of what my peers do in their classrooms, the challenges they face, and how the rhythms of their semester might differ from mine. I also have new admiration for how much reading my colleagues who teach three or four literature classes must do every semester, especially given how swamped I was by the reading for one course. And while teaching Spanish will never be an option for me, I am reminded that colleagues in other disciplines are also working hard. Teaching a new subject challenges me to explore what developing class plans in different disciplines might look like. Twenty years into a successful faculty career, it’s given me an invaluable lesson: that I still have a lot to learn about not only unfamiliar course content but the art of teaching as well.

Melanie Springer Mock, PhD, is a professor of English at George Fox University. She is the author or coauthor of five books, including most recently Worthy: Finding Yourself in a World Expecting Someone Else (Herald Press, 2018). Her essays and reviews have appeared in such venues as The Nation, Christian Feminism Today, Inside Higher Ed, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and Mennonite World Review.

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