Taking Over a Class Mid-Semester

Rhino on the River

This week, because a colleague is leaving*, I’ll be taking on her role in two classes. In both instances I’ll become the instructor of record, although one of the classes is team-taught, so I won’t be fully “taking over.” I’ve done this before, as once in graduate school I taught the final two months or so of a seminar.

It’s a thing that happens more often than one might think, due to the vicissitudes of life, and so I thought I’d gather a few thoughts on how to make the transition work smoothly:

  • Obviously, if you have a chance to plan with the outgoing professor, that’s best. Getting a sense of what the intended arc of the class would be helpful. Likewise, if the instructor’s taught the course before, then she might have a sense of what hidden pitfalls sometimes open up under students. A conversation about expectations around grading probably would not go amiss here.
  • Similarly, if possible, it helps if there’s a week or so of overlap, or at least an opportunity for the outgoing professor to more or less formally pass the baton.
  • In general, center the students’ experience of the class, not your own. That’s probably sound advice, but in such a situation many students might well feel anxious about the consequences of the change on their grade, on their ability to learn the required material, or even their ability to count on an instructor for letters of recommendation, if you’re replacing someone they know well. While you might be excited to get to teach a particular class, or stressed about adding classes unexpectedly to your workload, the students are in this instance the most important.
  • That probably means you shouldn’t change the syllabus much, if at all. Certainly this isn’t the time for wholesale changes to the reading list, or even for dramatically reimagining the kinds of assignments planned. The students have already to some extent made their plans for the semester on the basis of the extant syllabus, and upending that isn’t great. (Sometimes it’s unavoidable, in which case bending over backward to be transparent as to the reasons is probably the path forward.)
  • No snark about the previous instructor. It’s never a good look to run down colleagues in front of students, but now is very much not the time/place.
  • If the outgoing instructor had rubrics or other clear guidelines around grading, it might be best to at least try to use them.
  • Learn the students’ names as quick as you can, and, even more than usual, encourage them to come to your office hours.

I think those are my best guesses. What about you? Do you have tips for taking over a class from an instructor in the middle of the semester? Let us know in comments!

Photo “The Rhino on the River (Milltown)” by Flickr user William Murphy / Creative Commons licensed BY-SA-2.0

* Why, yes, that does mean we’re hiring.

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