Dear Labby,

I am a postdoc and I recently signed up to teach an undergraduate seminar course in my department. The course is organized by a senior professor (who is a very prominent scientist). While preparing my course materials, I was dismayed to learn that the professor requires all syllabi for the course to follow a very specific format. Notably, each weekly class session must have papers already selected, and the papers must be accompanied by a paragraph summarizing the relevant background.

I find this offensive for two reasons: First, while teaching as a visiting assistant professor before my postdoc, I had complete autonomy over my syllabus and course design; being constrained to a particular syllabus format feels like a blatant violation of my academic freedom. I simply want the flexibility to choose each week’s papers as the semester progresses, so I can tailor the course to the students’ needs and interests. Second, writing a paragraph describing each session’s topic feels like unproductive busywork. The professor claims this requirement is so that he can give course-related feedback, but I think it is merely a test of my work ethic. If I must prove myself, I’d rather do something that will have a more direct impact on the quality of my teaching (e.g., write an essay describing how my learning objectives align with my lesson plans and assessments).

The professor has made it clear that I cannot teach the class if I do not write my syllabus according to his requirements. I am ready to quit out of principle. (I don’t “need” the teaching experience; I signed up because I love to teach.) Is my indignation justified, or is my advisor right—that I am but a mere postdoc, so I should just suck it up and jump through the professor’s hoops?

—The Principled Postdoc

LabbyCover-230x300Dear Hopeful,

Labby commends your interest and commitment to teaching at this stage of your career. This will surely serve you well as you take the next steps in your professional life.

It sounds as though the course in question is organized into separate sections, each with an instructor like yourself, and the senior professor is responsible for coordinating and directing the course overall. This is a very common arrangement at both the undergraduate and graduate level, but it often involves some tension and compromise between the individual instructors and the course director. You are clearly invested in giving your students the best possible experience, and you have the laudable goal of being responsive to the interests and needs of the students in your section. You also want the flexibility to choose papers on the fly as the semester progresses.

The course director, on the other hand, while sharing your concern for student success, has other priorities to bear in mind. Students—particularly undergraduates—expect different sections of the same course to be reasonably consistent, especially with regard to the workload, the difficulty of the assignments, and the assessment of the work on which their grade is based. A “B” in each section should represent about the same level of mastery of the material and about the same amount of work as in another section, so that the grades are meaningful. Although this consistency can be achieved with different instructors taking different approaches, it’s easier to achieve when the general approach in each section is similar. Students will be more likely to recognize the assignments and the overall organization of the course as fair if the basic structure is the same in all the sections. This is, no doubt, what prompted the course director to ask you to follow a particular framework. There may have been occasions in the past when a more laissez-faire approach led to problems. Identifying the papers ahead of time and providing the students with background material may be helpful in reducing the students’ anxiety about getting “into” the primary literature, and you might find that this approach allows a broader cross-section of students to succeed.

Labby has found that differences of opinion such as this can often be resolved by focusing on the outcome that both parties want—in this case successful and engaged students. What do you and the course director want the students to get out of the course? Is it mastery of a particular area of biology? Is it an insight into how science happens (perhaps a window into how they themselves might make science happen)? Finding common ground on the learning objectives might prompt the course director to allow you more flexibility and might prompt you to think about the course in a different way. Labby’s advice is to be open minded and try out the course director’s model this semester, then take some time to provide feedback on how well it works in practice.

Finally, Labby notes that you raise concerns about academic freedom and feels obliged to comment on your use of this term. Labby has long been a staunch defender of academic freedom but thinks it’s worth asking ourselves what are the essential academic freedoms? In Labby’s opinion they are the freedom to advance ideas, to question received wisdom, to work on difficult and controversial topics, and to draw unpopular conclusions. These freedoms need all the protection we can muster, and it does harm to conflate these with the idea that because we work in an academic setting we are free to do as we please. Labby hopes that you focus your energy on fighting for the core values that all of us need to champion.