As part of my graduate training in clinical psychology, I was given the opportunity to serve as the primary instructor for one section of an undergraduate course. Excitement mounted as I awaited my assignment. Abnormal Psychology was the gold ring. It was always the most popular course, and I daydreamed about presenting enthusiastic students with fascinating case studies and wowing them with my insights. What I did not consider was that I might be assigned to teach one of the courses I had completed with minimal enthusiasm and maximum effort. Imagine my surprise when I was asked to teach Research Methods in Psychological Science—literally, my least favorite subject.
After nearly 30 years as a full-time educator, I have been given teaching assignments both within and outside of my professional passions. Courses in my area of interest are always exciting to build, and I can easily infuse lectures with anecdotes, research summaries, and related current events. Courses outside my personal interests are more daunting. But where comfort courses keep me excited about my discipline, I have come to believe the unfavored courses may be more broadly transformational—for me and for my students.
Teaching unfamiliar or less-preferred courses positions instructors to experience the unsettling reality of grappling with new, complex resources; identifying hidden connections; generating alternative perspectives; and building interdisciplinary approaches that breathe new life into the subject matter. Instructors cannot rely on their innate curiosity about the subject and must foster their own (and their students’) interest by applying the course content to topics or events that do inspire excitement. This is not dissimilar to the processes we ask students to engage in, most notably during in-class discussions or online discussion board assignments that require the application of concepts and theories to concrete life examples.
Instructors teaching less-preferred courses are also often forced to break down and then rebuild difficult concepts to adequately explain them. Often, this leads to experimentation with new instructional techniques or the development of new examples. The process of engaging in an intellectual exploration of a topic one did not choose to study enhances the instructor’s ability to think critically and creatively. Again, this echoes the skills we aim for when creating assessments for our students. And because the instructor may be reluctantly engaged in processing the material, it is likely they will develop a better sense of empathy and understanding of students who struggle or remain disinterested in their coursework. Empathy promotes connection, which promotes better learning.
Assigning a faculty member to teach a less-preferred course creates an opportunity to provide students with live modeling of critical life skills. Instructors can demonstrate commitment, perseverance, humility, the ability to navigate unfamiliar territory, and flexibility in the face of challenges. They have an opportunity to demonstrate the importance of a positive attitude when faced with a less-preferred task and the value of being open to discovery and delight. Instructors who ask thought-provoking questions and approach the material from different angles encourage students to develop and express their own independent thoughts. Students may learn the value of diverse perspectives and come to understand why different voices are needed in any conversation. Without curiosity, questions, and challenge, there is no growth in any discipline.
Regardless of your personal affinity for the subject matter, your role as an instructor remains the same: create a supportive and inclusive classroom environment where students feel understood, encourage intellectual curiosity, expand students’ thinking, facilitate creativity and problem-solving, promote empathy and understanding, and foster personal and professional growth. It is essential to remember the transformative power of education. As Nelson Mandela eloquently stated, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” While you may not feel a strong personal connection to the course material, your role as an educator empowers you to model curiosity, to inspire, and to equip students with knowledge and skills that can shape their lives and make a positive impact on society. The next time you are assigned to one of your unfavored courses, embrace it as an opportunity for growth and expect the unexpected.
Kerri Augusto, PhD, is director of undergraduate studies and associate professor of psychology at William James College in Newton, Massachusetts.