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I'm a tenured professor at a national public university. I was just on a two-year leave of absence (to do a startup) and I'm now returning to the university. I was just informed I'm going to have to teach a class on X. I protested that I don't even know what X is, but my chair said "sorry, we have no one else to teach it."

I am tempted to just refuse to teach the class, both for my own sake and the sake of the students. I've scoured the faculty handbook, but it says nothing about teaching assignments.

I'm sure this varies by institution, but what's your perception? Does a faculty member have any discretion in what he/she teaches?

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    Having been in this situation of teaching a subject I didn't know anything about, I found this book helpful. – ff524 Oct 27 '17 at 21:23
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    Also see: How to teach a class that I've never taken? – ff524 Oct 27 '17 at 21:25
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    Is this a graduate class? Or undergraduate? Is it introductory or advanced?Presumably as a professor you have enough background that you can be expected to learn the subject matter before the students do and then teach it to them, right? It's not like they're having you teach history in a physics class, right? – user541686 Oct 27 '17 at 22:48
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    If it is an undergraduate class, it is surprisingly easy to keep a chapter or so ahead of the course. Think of it this way -- if you were an undergraduate taking this course, and you knew everything about the broader subject that you know now, you would almost certainly find the course a somewhat easy "A". Students who are heading towards an easy A often find themselves helping fellow students who are struggling with the material more than they. You get to help these struggling fellow students -- and you actually get paid for doing so. – John Coleman Oct 27 '17 at 23:41
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    Possible duplicate of How to teach a class that I've never taken? – John D Oct 28 '17 at 1:33
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Does a faculty member have any discretion in what he/she teaches?

Informally/unofficially: yes, they should have some say in it -- it would be weird for them not to be at least asked about their preferences. Formally/officially: how could they? If five or ten or thirty or one hundred faculty members each insist that they must teach Y and/or cannot teach X then with very high probability there will be no way to make everyone happy. Scheduling classes for a university department is a huge pain in the butt no matter what. (I have never done it myself and would never do it...because it's a huge pain in the butt. However, my current job of Graduate Coordinator is laterally adjacent to this position and close enough for me to see how difficult it is.) If you don't give department figures at least some amount of authority over the faculty members on matters pertaining to the department as a whole, then there is an ever present threat of devolving into anarchy.

More crisply: be careful. Outright refusing to do one of their core job responsibilities is the best way for a tenured faculty member to get in serious trouble, up to and including getting fired. Based on my own practical experience, it would be a bit over the top for someone to get fired after having pulled this once, but the point is that you'd be standing on shaky ground. Moreover, outright refusal is not a very helpful position:

both for my own sake and the sake of the students.

I just said that doing this is probably not in your own best interest. Moreover, how is it in the interest of the students? If you really just refuse, then what happens? I guess the chair books you to teach the class anyway and you don't show up...this is not helping anyone.

So what should you do? Talk further to the chair and other faculty. The chair is trying to solve an administrative problem: find someone to teach X. As with most academic administrators, he is doing it under severe constraints: apparently no one else has an open teaching slot. So he has found the best "local solution" to the problem: assign Professor Fixee to do it. You should have at least one in-person conversation with the chair and go over the following two points:

1) Help him understand why his proposed solution is a bad one.

He doesn't seem to be looking at the fact that you have no knowledge of subject X whatsoever. Maybe he thinks you're exaggerating to get out of an undesirable teaching assignment. You have to let him know the truth and explore some of the implications of this with him. (By the way, could it be that you are not actually uniquely unqualified to teach subject X -- maybe nobody else knows any more than you? Maybe their one expert in subject X left suddenly? It's possible...)

2) Help him "widen the problem-solving window" to include other solutions, and take on some of the effort in solving the problem yourself.

Let's assume you are literally the worst person in the department to teach subject X. So who is actually more qualified to teach it? (You do the work in figuring that out.) Okay, so why are these people not teaching it -- presumably they are already loaded up with teaching assignments or other professional obligations. Can you arrange a swap with one of these faculty members? If so, do it and present that to the chair as a solution.

TL;DR: If you go to an administrative figure and say "Sorry, what you've asked me to do just won't work; please fix it," their answer is much more likely to be negative than if you say, "What you've asked me to do has some serious drawbacks; I'd like to propose that we do this instead." In my experience when two faculty members come to the relevant faculty administrator and say "We'd like to swap classes X and Y" the answer is usually yes. Why not? It creates no new problems for them to solve.

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    Thank you for the extensive and well-considered reply. I said "for the sake of the students" because I believe they deserve someone who's at least nominally competent to teach a class they've signed up for. A lot of these students mortgage their future to be in the classroom and they deserve better than someone reading from the textbook. :) – Fixee Oct 27 '17 at 21:03
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    "because I believe they deserve someone who's at least nominally competent to teach a class they've signed up for." Me too. My point is that simply refusing to teach the course does not help at all to fix this. Also, as I said, for all I know there is no one else more competent to teach the course than you. If so...well, you gotta do something. Maybe postpone the course to the following semester or year and get someone who can teach it. Maybe start learning X now so that two months from now you'll do a halfway decent job? I don't know exactly what the situation is... – Pete L. Clark Oct 27 '17 at 21:07
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    A word of encouragement from someone who's taught subjects I knew almost nothing about prior: For many subjects it is possible to do an acceptable job reading a couple chapters ahead. This obviously becomes more difficult for higher course-level classes or more specialized/technical subjects. But as an older, PhD'd, likely above-the-average-undergrad-IQ person, you have a lot more skill/experience in how to find out what to learn, how to learn quickly, and how to apply yourself to study than an undergrad. Yes it isn't optimal, but the class can still absolutely be worth their time. – TheAtomicOption Oct 27 '17 at 21:18
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    @Fixee - Well, actually, as long as you have that face to face conversation Pete suggested, and then, if no alternative has been found, give in GRACEFULLY, you'll get a lot of brownie points out of this experience. (When you cash them in, do that gracefully too.) – aparente001 Oct 28 '17 at 2:49
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    @JBentley: First of all, as has come out in the comments, if an instructor agrees to teach a course, they will make some preparations in advance so as not to literally begin the course with no more knowledge than the students. But "The student can read a book and learn as they go just as much as the teacher can." In the vast majority of cases, a Professor in department A would have a significant advantage in teaching any course in department A than a student taking the course: the Professor has after all spent his professional life studying subject A.... – Pete L. Clark Oct 28 '17 at 18:47
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Oh dear. This is definitely a tricky situation, and I would advise you to proceed with the utmost caution. Let me start with an anecdote to illustrate how such situations can escalate into a very unpleasant series of events.

Once upon a time, in a university far, far away, the following events happened:

  1. In a department D, the department chair C assigned a senior professor P a class X, that professor P believed he was not qualified to teach.

  2. P informed C of the problem and asked to be relieved of the assignment and to be assigned a different class instead.

  3. C refused P's request, citing as the reason "as a faculty member of department D, you should be qualified to teach any of the core material, including class X, if you spend an adequate amount of time preparing for the assignment".

  4. Not knowing what else to do, P made private arrangements for his postdoc Q, who was familiar with the material of class X, to give the lectures in class X, with P remaining nominally as the course instructor, and Q not being paid for his work and not having any official authorization to be involved in instruction of the class.

  5. C found out about this, and P got in very serious trouble.


Now, to address what you wrote:

Does a faculty member have any discretion in what he/she teaches?

No. In every university I am familiar with, the department chair (or their delegate, e.g., a vice chair or a committee) makes decisions about teaching assignments, and faculty are required to teach what they are assigned. At my institution, "failure to meet the responsibilities of instruction" is a violation of the faculty code of conduct and can result in disciplinary action and other bad consequences (including, in severe cases, termination of employment).

With that said, a competent chair will certainly at least consider advice and suggestions from faculty on such matters.

I protested that I don't even know what X is

Forgive my cheekiness, but if you don't know what X is, can you credibly claim to "know nothing about" X? What I mean (based on a literal interpretation of your statement, which I can't say for sure is the right interpretation) is, isn't there a chance that when you find out what X is you'll realize that you actually do know something about it? For example, if I were assigned to teach database design, my first reaction would be to make the correct statement that I don't know what database design is; however, I suspect that if I did look into it, I might discover that it does relate to some things that I know, so that the statement "I know nothing about database design" is not completely true.

The reason I mention this is to point out that if I were the department chair, I might be more inclined to listen to someone with a request like yours if they showed me that they had made some effort to learn what X is, and make an estimate of the amount of effort it would take them to teach the class effectively, before making the request. Saying "I don't even know what X is" sounds like a knee-jerk, panic-induced reaction, so I may be more inclined to dismiss such a request and counsel the person making it to simply do the work of preparing for the assignment adequately. After all, we have all taught subjects on topics that we weren't 100% (or in some cases even 50%) familiar with at one point or another, and learning more about a subject you're assigned to teach is considered part of the normal work of an academic.

what's your perception?

Based on the above analysis, I would make the following suggestions:

  1. Question your assumptions. Maybe you are used to teaching subjects close to your expertise that you are very familiar with, so by comparison, subject X feels like something you "know nothing about". However, being a professor does not entitle you to teach only subjects you're an expert on. It is quite reasonable that once in a while you will be assigned to teach a subject you are not an expert on, or even one you know only a little about and may need to do some hard work to reach a sufficient mastery of before you can teach it well. Obviously I can't say if your assessment that you know nothing about X is correct or not, but certainly I would advise you to do some due diligence on the subject and think hard about whether your extreme "know-nothing" assessment is really a reasonable one, before taking any further action.

  2. Talk again to the department chair. If after step 1 you still think that the chair's decision is gravely in error, go and talk to him/her again. Maybe the previous discussion happened over email, so talking in person might have better results. Come prepared with a thorough analysis of why you are the wrong person to teach the class. As Pete Clark suggests, maybe come prepared with an alternate plan of who can teach the class instead of you.

  3. Recruit allies. Before or after talking to the chair, talk to some of your other colleagues, both to get a sanity check on whether your perception is correct, and to get their support in case they agree with you. Having support from a few of your colleagues (especially ones who are influential or well-respected within the department) might make the chair view things differently.

  4. Consider formal action. I wouldn't recommend this, but if all else fails and you still believe the assignment imposes an undue and unreasonable burden on you, most institutions would have mechanisms such as a formal grievance procedure you can file against the chair. This would make particular sense in a situation where you feel the chair gave you the assignment out of spite or bias. From your description of the situation it sounds to me like you wouldn't have a winning case, but I don't know enough to say for sure, so it's something to think about and/or consult other experienced colleagues who can consider the details of the situation.

  5. WHATEVER HAPPENS, DO NOT UNILATERALLY REFUSE TO TEACH THE COURSE. If you can't get the decision overturned using legitimate means available to you (as described above), under no circumstance should you take matters into your own hands and fail to perform the assignment (as the person in the anecdote did, with bad consequences). Instead, in that unfortunate scenario I suggest taking the following steps:

    a. Make a reasonable, good-faith effort to learn the material of the class as well as anyone with your background should be expected to do in a reasonable amount of time (where "reasonable" is probably more than you think you should have to spend learning the material of a class you are assigned to teach, but less than a person who truly "knows nothing about X" would need in order to teach the class as well as an expert in the subject).

    b. Show up for all the lectures and teach the class (and perform all other duties related to teaching the class) to the best of your abilities given the reasonable effort you've made preparing.

    c. Document in writing your expressions of disapproval of the chair's decision to assign you the class. This puts any ultimate responsibility for the decision on the chair, if and when students complain that they are being offered inadequate instruction in the class from someone who doesn't know the material well enough. It should also allow you to sleep well at night - ultimately this will prove that you did everything you could to protect the students' interests as well as your own.

Good luck!

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    This is great advice, but I want to at least mention that in central Europe your story is basically the default teaching mode in many universities - professors get teaching assignments, they then assign the entire course or parts of it to one or more of her/his staff, while credit (and formal responsibility for grading / quality control etc.) is largely retained by the professor. Of course I don't think that this is true for Fixee, but I think it's not unimportant to mention. – xLeitix Oct 28 '17 at 18:25
  • @xLeitix thanks, good to know. While there is indeed some similarity, it sounds like in the system you’re describing, the professors are delegating their responsibilities to their staff with the knowledge and approval of their institutions. This was very much not the case in the anecdote I was referring to. – Dan Romik Oct 28 '17 at 18:48
  • @DanRomik Indeed, at least unofficially everybody knows. In reflection I am also not sure whether this is true in mathematics quite as much as in the sciences. – xLeitix Oct 29 '17 at 7:00
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As many people have pointed out, you are more than capable of studying the course material, if it is in any way related to your area of expertise, and learning enough about it to teach undergraduates. (Undergraduates with poor instructors teach each other the course material all the time, for example.)

One thing that will help you is to stick fairly closely to the official textbook for the course, perhaps also studying a few other standard textbooks for perspective, so that the students have the ability to make up for any areas you are weaker in. And if students ask background questions you can't answer, it's OK to say "this is my first time teaching this class and I don't have all the answers, but I will look into that and let you know at the next class."

Nobody else seems to have pointed out what seems to be an important factor: Returning from a two-year leave of absence, you are presumably at the bottom of the pecking order when making class assignments; professors also presumably have dibs on teaching the course they taught last semester if they enjoyed it and got good student evaluations. Other class assignments were probably also made, officially or unofficially, while you were away from the university. You are simply the last available resource to fill out the course schedule before the university has to resort to hiring temps, who may be even less effective instructors than you.

However, whatever the outcome, do NOT take it out on the students. I once took a junior-level CS class taught by a research professor with more tenure than the Dean. He made it very clear in a thousand ways that he considered our class and its material beneath him.

-o- At that time students very carefully managed their schedules to only take one programming class per semester. He decided our class would be more interesting with programming hardware simulations. In a language he had written himself, for which there were no outside resources.

-o- In spite of clear University guidelines specifying otherwise, he refused to tell the class how much various assignments were worth, saying we wouldn't work hard enough on things that were weighted lower.

-o- Rather than publish the date of the midterm in advance, again as clearly required by University regulations, he announced at the lightly-attended class the Wednesday afternoon before Thanksgiving, hours after the dorms had already been locked up for the break, that the midterm would be given the Monday after Thanksgiving. 25% of the material on the midterm was based on new material, not in the class syllabus, introduced at that single class.

Again, this was a research professor who brought millions of dollars a year to the University. Students who complained were told that nothing could be done.

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I would recommend reading "Teaching What You Don't Know" by Therese Huston. Within a few pages you'll see how this is a very common situation for many professors and teachers of all levels. The book will guide on how to proceed with good strategies for teaching what you don't know and how to enjoy it.

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Yes, you have discretion on what you teach just as you have discretion over whether you continue to work there or not. If the University wants to have teachers teach subjects they don't know, then either they are making it a challenge for you to learn it, or they have no educational standard.

When you got your Doctorate of Philosophy, YOU became the authority. The term connotes (if not denotes) that there is no higher authority. Perhaps the chair is suggesting that you don't know your field well enough, or perhaps they're being cheap -- you have to figure which one that is and hold them to a standard you believe in.

If they're not willing to be held to such a standard, then go talk to the Dean. Go to the Provost if you have to. If, by the end of your exploration, it turns out that they don't meet your expectations of quality, get out and save yourself a lot of disappointments.

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    A PhD doesn't mean there is no higher authority, it means there's no further qualification a single university can really give to demonstrate the completion of learning, as everything after it is the discovery of new knowledge and hence the next stage of learning will never truly end. That's entirely besides the fact that academic knowledge is not employment hierarchy, and there is definitely authority above just being a PhD holder. – Nij Oct 28 '17 at 3:44
  • @Nij: says who? – TheDoctor Oct 28 '17 at 3:45
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    I do not think the word “discretion” means what you think it means. – Dan Romik Oct 28 '17 at 6:43
  • @DanRomik: ah, thanks for pointing out a sloppy use of the word. – TheDoctor Oct 28 '17 at 6:48

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