02/28/2013 04:15 pm ET Updated Apr 30, 2013

Attn. Faculty: Take a Class! It Will Help You!

The other day in class, I was suddenly overwhelmed by the feeling that I had lost complete control of my course. The students were paying me zero attention, the thread of dialogue was going in a completely different direction than I had planned, and I felt like a complete failure as a member of the faculty.

And then, the actual professor asked the class a question and I quickly remembered, "Oh... yeah... this isn't my course."

At the start of this semester, on a bit of a lark, I decided to attend a few of Marlboro College's Intro Classes. Over a two-day span, every professor at the college offers a 15-minute session of the courses they will be teaching that semester. Students shop around to as many different Intro Classes as they want to get a sense of the professor and the course topic and then build their academic schedule with this more informed perspective.

I had never attended any Intro Classes before as I was usually either preparing or presenting my own. But, as I decided to step back from teaching courses this semester, I was free to see what it is that other faculty actually do.

The first class I attended was helmed by Dr. Lynette Rummel, a professor of international political theory, a firebrand in committee meetings, and my wonderful faculty mentor. The course was entitled, "Arab Springs: Reflection from North Africa" and was focused on a region of the world I have never studied and was only dimly aware.

Those 15 minutes were among the most inspiring quarter-hour I have had in my academic career. Dr. Rummel flew into the room, never introduced herself (we all knew who she was) and launched into a quick synopsis of her incredible time spent in North Africa. Her passion for the region was palpable as she touched briefly on the beauty, volatility, intrigue and rich history of the region.

And, get this, she had actual expectations! She told students that they needed to be on time. She let them know they must participate (or she would call on them!) and be overtly engaged. She even had the audacity to let them know that she was an individual with years of experience in the region and would be the one doing the teaching (a statement some professors avoid in favor of a comment that serves to equalize the status of everyone in the room).

It was a master class performance, all in 15 minutes. I left the room and immediately did two things: skipped to the bookstore to purchase the texts for the course and then asked the president if it would be alright for me to carve a chunk out of my Dean-time to take the class. The order was a bit off, but my commitment was clear.

Now approaching the midpoint of the semester, I am already incredibly appreciative of this great opportunity to shift where I sit in the classroom. It has been eye-opening and will, without question, enhance my own teaching by broadening my perspective on methods of content delivery. I urge you, fellow members of the faculty: take a class! A few key points to help guide you:

Explore a different discipline. My courses in education do not touch on self-immolation, armies who don't fire on civilians and, apart from some rogue superintendents, heads of state who have no plans to end their reigns of corruption. By taking a course (far) outside my discipline, I was able to both learn something new (always a good thing!) as well as focus more fully on the teaching methods before me. I will never teach this content, so I could hone in on how Dr. Rummel both helms the class and creates myriad opportunities for learning.

Do the work. Sure, you could audit the course, but that wouldn't give you the full student experience (and, as she said during that Intro Class, Dr. Rummel doesn't like auditors!). Take the course for credit and do all the work expected of your new student peers. It will deepen your commitment to the course content and serve as a critical reminder that there is a large space between work assigned and work completed. Writing my first paper in a decade that would be graded quickly changed my thinking about the assignments I build into my own courses.

Release control. Without question, the hardest part of this experience has been stepping back from my dean/faculty role and just participating in the course as a student. I saw who was absent on the day the first paper was due and my inclination was to send that student an email saying, "What the heck?!?" But, again, this was not my class. It is a role-reversal as unnerving as it is freeing.

We're all so busy. I know that and keenly get it. But taking a colleague's course exists on an altogether more instructive plane than attending a session at our professional association's annual conference. Shift around your schedule and make it work. This opportunity has enhanced my teaching, expanded my concept of classroom dynamics and allowed me to witness a valued colleague do what she does so well. And I still have four papers left to write!

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