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Professors and teaching assignments

  1. Jan 4, 2012 #1

    How do teaching assignments work for professors? I want to be a physics professor one day, and I would love to teach QM, electromagnetism, stat. mech, etc...but I am not sure how this works. I have seen teaching records for some profs. and it seems like some have literally taught all of the undergraduate topics multiple times over their careers. How does one do this? Does the professor ask the department, "Hey can I teach the senior level quantum mechanics sequence next year? Can I teach E&M the year after that?" Also, how about graduate courses?

    The record of David Jackson is very impressive and I would love an opportunity to know these topics well enough to teach over the years.

  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 4, 2012 #2

    Andy Resnick

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    The Department Chair assigns courses. Some classes are 'plum assignments' and others are 'service'- large classes taught to non-majors.

    Something to keep in mind is that the time commitment needed to teach a class the first time is significantly more than teaching the class again due to the need to generate course materials. This matters because I have to balance my time between teaching and research.
  4. Jan 5, 2012 #3
    So could a professor ask the department chair if he could teach class X next year or is there no say in the matter at all? I have noticed some professors at my uni seem to teach exclusively upper level undergrad, while others only teach intro level.
  5. Jan 5, 2012 #4


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    The exact course assignment procedures, and how formal or informal they are, probably vary a lot from one school to another. At a small college with three or four physics faculty, like the one where I am, profs tend to settle into a pattern of teaching certain courses regularly, based on their interests and expertise, and switch them around occasionally by mutual agreement. When I took my turn as chair and had to put together schedules each semester, I usually pretty much knew in advance who was going to teach most courses. It was mainly a matter of dividing up the introductory labs to balance the schedules, and arranging the rooms and time periods so there were no conflicts.
  6. Jan 15, 2012 #5


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    As jtbell pointed out, it will vary by school and department. Generally, every department has their bread and butter courses...ones they have to teach. The chair will make assignments to make sure those are covered first. After that, it will depend on the percent of time you're expected to teach vs do research and serve on committees. If you have additional time to teach, you may be able to negotiate to teach an extra course of your choosing, or you might have to get in line behind more senior faculty. In my own experience, I was allowed to develop an entirely new course and given complete autonomy in running it, which was wonderful, but is also a rare luxury. Some of the teaching I do doesn't really count. Once I go over my required assignments, I pretty much am volunteering my time. It's crappy, but has turned into the most enjoyable and rewarding part of my teaching.

    I am allowed to do anything I want with my summers, so that's when I do what's most fun. I teach high school honors students then and get to go wild covering totally atypical topics. Last summer I blended history and art with anatomy. This coming summer we'll combine reading popular nonfiction, nutrition, and volunteerism with anatomy. Other people will teach a graduate course in their favorite area. There's usually room to teach something you enjoy as long as you realize it might be extra effort without extra compensation and count yourself lucky if it does count toward your standard assignment.
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