On Course: A Week-by-Week Guide to Your First Semester of College Teaching . By James M.Lang . Cambridge Mass. : Harvard University Press , 2008 . xv + 315 pages. ISBN 978-0-674-02806-7 . $28.00 .
James Lang served for three years as the assistant director of Northwestern University's Searle Center for Teaching Excellence before he landed his first tenure-track job. In that capacity, he read a lot and supported the sort of orientation programs that new faculty receive at most colleges and universities. Yet his book reflects the larger and perhaps more sober perspective of a professor who actually taught six or seven courses in his first year. With a typical semester in mind, Lang plots his chapters on the model of a 15-week syllabus, with a topic (and relevant readings) for each week. The idea that this book offers a “week-by-week guide” to the beginning professor is, as Lang puts it, a bit of a conceit. Better advice is to read it before the semester begins. However, the conceit works nicely enough to give first-time instructors a sense of the regular rhythm of a semester.
Lang helps the new instructor conceptualize a course to support and build student achievement. For example, he encourages new professors to design their courses around a set of promises to students – such as, that they will learn a set of specific skills and capabilities – and to keep these promises in mind while developing the progression of assignments. In this way the new professor can undertake to provide resources and opportunities that are geared to the fulfillment of those promises, and both the professor and the students are able to keep track of their fulfillment. By plotting the syllabus to fulfill a set of promises, the new professor is immediately required to structure the course around the students' learning goals rather than, say, a chronology or greatest hits list.
Lang has evidently taught large classes on a demanding schedule, yet he nonetheless urges the value of active learning. This method always requires more planning and more skill than the alternative of presenting material to passive students on a one-way street. So although lecturing is the subject of the “third week” chapter, Lang urges faculty to let students know from the first day of class that they will be expected to participate in every class in some way. This may mean breaking up a lecture to give the students a question as the basis for a short in-class writing assignment, or dividing the class into informal small groups to solve a specific problem or address an idea. Lang stresses that in-class activities need to have a clear purpose and a specific product. By breaking up a period with various activities, the new professor stimulates different learning styles, and gains opportunities to see how well the students are doing. I especially liked the idea of asking students at the end of a class to review their notes and write down issues that remain unclear to them. This provides a foundation for new learning for the students, but also gives the instructor specific clues as to what needs to be reviewed next time.
Lang is also attentive to the stressful demands on a new professor's time. The exigencies of course preparation can seem limitless. Helpfully, Lang suggests that new professors learn how to prepare for their courses (and for their publications) by using many, yet relatively brief, periods of time. By allowing fifteen minutes here and there to make progress on an outline or an assignment, the urgency of scheduling the (unavailable) two or three hours of uninterrupted preparation time abates. Further, short periods of time are both easier to schedule and harder to waste. And the outcome benefits from the background reflection and multiple inputs we gain in the course of doing other things. In my view, this is one of his wisest pieces of advice.
Lang's two chapters on students and teachers “as people” begin to address teaching and learning as vocations. While Lang does not dwell on these dimensions, he offers reflections on the challenging lives of students and professors as the inevitable context in which we engage each other. He advises appropriate boundaries, which respect the demanding lives our students may be leading, while offering encouragement that learning is a path of enlargement and renewal.