Des conseils de carrière
Teaching large classes
One professor’s story of trial
and error (and cursing)
by David Smith
t’s three in the morning. I can’t sleep. I’m
sweating and anxious. In three hours I have
to stand in front of 600 undergraduate students and try my best not to pass out. Like an
athlete before the big event, I’m envisioning
my lecture slide by slide, which takes my heart rate
into overdrive. How did I – an introverted genome
geek – find myself in this predicament?
Six months earlier, the chair of my department had cast this course in a different light.
“Dave,” he said, “second-year genetics is a piece
of cake and perfect for you. It’s part of the biology core curriculum, will look great on your tenure application, and is an excellent opportunity
to hone your teaching skills” – which up until
this point had only been tested in the arena of a
tiny seminar course.
“Sign me up,” I said, and then confidently
walked out of the office right before my knees got
weak thinking about Natural Science 145, the biggest lecture hall on campus.
I arrive at my lab an hour before my first class
and gulp a large coffee as I go over my slides
one final time. (I’ll soon discover that too much
coffee and too much practice result in a shaky,
stale performance.) I make my way to the main
doors of lecture hall 145 and watch countless
bodies funnel in.
This bull ring of a lecture hall is more com-
plicated than I anticipated. I fiddle with the intri-
cate lighting system, getting loud applause when
the room descends in darkness. I then success-
fully project my email inbox onto two humon-
gous high-definition screens. “Shit,” I exclaim
through the surround-sound audio system as I
struggle to find the PowerPoint presentation,
which I should have left open or at least easily
accessible on my MacBook desktop. Once the
laughter subsides, I start my lecture.
Perched in front of me on the podium are
dozens of smartphones recording my every stut-
ter and bad joke. “Shit,” I say again, but this time
no one hears me: the batteries are dead in my
microphone. A student in the front row points
to a small cardboard box full of batteries and
after a bit of fiddling I’m soon back on track, but
I finish my talk a full 15 minutes early. The com-
bination of fear and Tim Hortons has made me
the Usain Bolt of biology lecturers.
Before I can take solace in the fact that I’m
one lecture closer to the finish, I’m swarmed by
a large group of students who bombard me with
questions. I direct the swarm outside of the class-
room, but still I hold up the next class.
Back in my office, I try to work on a manu-
script. It’s no use. Later, I’ll figure out that it’s best
to go for a walk or to the gym immediately after
a large lecture, rather than try to be productive.
But for now I stare blankly at my computer
screen contemplating that in less than 24 hours
I’ll be delivering the same lecture to another sec-
tion of 600 students. To take my mind off this
fact, I reply to some emails. My goodness, I have
42 new messages!
Over the coming months, the emails will con-
tinue to pour in and I’ll recognize that my inbox
is an instrument of torture rather than of commu-
nication. I’ll learn that online course management
Isystems are designed to infuriate teachers but are as important and central to the course as the lectures themselves – who would have thought hat a frequently asked questions page could be so useful?
The mid-term exam teaches me a whole new
set of lessons, not the least of which is how to
rotate among nine different rooms in four dif-
ferent buildings at opposite ends of campus. But
no matter what the room, within minutes of the
exam starting I’m quickly informed of every
grammatical and logical error that I managed to
introduce into a few dozen multiple-choice ques-
tions, each of which took blood, sweat and tears
Soon I starting thinking: a) quit my job, b)
turn to the bottle, c) move to California, or d) all
By the end of the semester, the students stop
laughing at my inexperience and start listening
to my lectures, which improve. I’m now an expert
at changing batteries, illuminating auditoriums
and herding young adults into hallways. Every
final exam question is vetted twice.
In June I received a thick folder of course
evaluations. There are hundreds of comments,
ranging from cruel to hilarious to constructive.
“Dr. Smith lacks the wisdom and experience of
older profs.” This is true. But it’s the ones like
this: “You’ve made me love genetics, which I
never thought could happen,” that keep me going
and make it all worthwhile.
David Smith is an assistant
professor in the biology depart-
ment at Western University.
He can be found online at
Cet article est également
disponible en français
sur notre site web,
“ ‘Shit,’ I say again, but this
time no one hears me:
the batteries are dead in