Building a Reputation for Our Teaching

This semester I’ll be teaching a class that I’m absolutely thrilled about, an upper-level special-topics course that’s rather unlike anything I’ve done before. This is also the first time I’ve really designed a syllabus from scratch, as opposed to modeling it on something I took as a student or have seen others teach.

I pitched the idea to my department chair this fall, then I took the syllabus to the universitywide general-education committee and had it approved to fulfill the diversity requirement all students need for graduation. Other professors kept telling me how they wished they could take the course. I gave it a catchy title, wrote a course description that highlighted the topic’s inherent interest, and even spoke about it in a talk I gave to the department’s honor society. I even scheduled it at a reasonable time for undergraduates: 12:55 p.m. Everything seemed on track.

Then registration came and went and no one enrolled. Or almost no one. It looked for a while as though the class wouldn’t make it, and when it did, it was populated almost entirely by students who studied with me last semester.

Once I got over my initial surprise and discouragement that the course wasn’t more popular (after all, it’s something quite different from the usual fare), I realized that its newness and mine were precisely the problem. When a professor steps outside the basic course offerings, he or she is asking students for significant trust and imagination. Even if it’s clear how the course could fit into a degree plan, students have nothing to measure it against. And if the professor is also new, there’s an additional unknown.

The failure of my hot new course to attract wider interest has led me to do some thinking these last few weeks about how new professors build a reputation as someone students can count on for a good course. Of course the most obvious way to is simply to teach successful, compelling classes, but that takes time and experience—precisely what new professors lack. Surely there must be more we can do in our first semesters at a new institution.

Actually, my department chair shared with me that she sees enrollment drop off for professors who have just returned from leave or sabbatical, so perhaps the problem extends to anyone who hasn’t had a regular presence on campus for a while. Even for those classes whose enrollment is never in question, it makes sense that the professor’s reputation would play a key role in attracting certain types of students. Those just looking to make it through with a passing grade will gravitate toward instructors with a history of leniency, an energetic teacher will naturally attract students who want to be energized, and a professor with no reputation at all will collect those students who register late or whose first concern is simply the time slot.

So, outside the classroom, how do we begin to build a reputation for our teaching and for ourselves as dedicated teachers? When you first started, how did you interest students in your upper-level classes? How did you get the word out that something special was going to be happening next semester?

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