Miniature book review: Steven Cahn on graduate school and academia

I just read political theorist Steven Cahn’s recent book “Student to Scholar: A Candid Guide to Becoming a Professor,” and I thought I’d mention it on the blog.  First, this is a pretty good book and I recommend it to anyone in the social sciences or humanities that is in grad school or thinking about trying to get a Ph.d.  It’s a short book – it only took about two evenings to read – and is written in an informal style that feels more like a conversation over coffee than anything else.

The book has short chapters covering things like advisors, the dissertation, teaching, the job market, life as a new associate professor, and publishing.  I won’t summarize it all here, but I’ll give you a taste with his four rules for successful teaching.

1.  Motivate your students by engaging them at the beginning of each class with a puzzle or a challenging idea.  (I like this one alot as I accidentally discovered this quite recently in my own classes.  If you just begin with a roadmap or dive into lecture, you’ll be much less likely to sustain interest than if you start with something more dramatic).

2.  Plan your assignments and lectures with the idea of demonstrating important principles in more than one way.  Different people have different learning styles, so you’ll be more effective if you present the same information verbally, and also graphically, and also using analogies, and real world examples.  Note that this may mean dialing back how much material you cover, but really making sure that they understand what you do cover.

3.  Always provide the broad framework so the lesson is in context.  Too often, students see successive lessons as unconnected or ad hoc because the logical flow of the course may not be obvious to non-experts.  The instructor has to make sure students see how all the lessons hang together and make up a coherent whole.

4.  Education is not indoctrination.  Don’t just talk at them and expect them to write down everything you say.  Another way of saying this is “We’re not teaching them what to think, we’re teaching them how to think,” and though Cahn doesn’t say this, I see this as a strong encouragement to Socratic-style class discussion where the instructor mostly asks questions rather than attempting to settle all uncertainty with statements of prevailing scholarly views on a question.  By cutting off discussion via the authoritative statement, an instructor undermines the social science objective of teaching critical thinking.

All in all, a good book.  Our library doesn’t have it so you’ll have to get your own copy or go through inter-library loan, but for $10 it’s a good deal.

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About Jake Wobig

I teach international relations and comparative politics at Wingate University in Wingate, North Carolina
This entry was posted in Academia and the Profession, Teaching and TAing. Bookmark the permalink.

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