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Max. Classroom Capacity: On Stretch Teaching Assignments

Loren J. Naidoo, California State University, Northridge

Before we get into the topic for today, here’s a quick update from my last column. As you may recall, that column described a class learning exercise involving the development of a Hogan-aligned personality assessment. Imagine my surprise and delight when Dr. Robert Hogan, I-O psychology legend and founder and president of Hogan Assessment Systems, reached out to me in response. I am so grateful to him for his generosity in sharing his advice and giving my students free access to Hogan’s suite of assessments, as well as support in understanding their assessment scores! This was incredibly nice of Dr. Hogan, and my students were absolutely thrilled to take the assessments. Those of you who are interested in conducting research on the Hogan personality assessments or would like your students to learn more about Hogan assessments should reach out to Dr. Chase Winterberg, the director of the Hogan Research Institute. Dr. Winterberg noted their commitment to objective science, which includes the availability of free, single-item versions of HPI and HDS assessments. Thanks also to Dr. Peter Harms, who brought to my attention a recent publication that describes the development of these free versions.

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I have three boys who, for the last few years, have played in a basketball league at a facility called the “Sports Academy” in Southern California. It used to be called the “Mamba Academy” and was owned by Kobe Bryant, the late, brilliant, and controversial superstar shooting guard for the Los Angeles Lakers basketball team (RIP). As a result of his fame and the facility’s proximity to the exclusive, gated communities of Calabasas, several Hollywood celebrities’ kids also play in this league. Here’s a very “LA” story: I coached a game where my youngest son was guarding one of Kim Kardashian’s kids, and she and Canadian NBA basketball player Tristan Thompson (currently of the Cleveland Cavaliers) were watching from their seats directly across the court from me. Unless you are (a) a basketball fan, (b) a fan of the Kardashians, or (c) a reader of celebrity gossip magazines, you probably have never heard of Tristan Thompson. He has the fascinating distinction of apparently being the only player in NBA history to switch his shooting hand. In 2013, he started shooting the ball with his right hand after having spent his entire life shooting with his left hand. Imagine being asked to switch your writing hand. Not easy!1 Kudos to him for undertaking this challenge despite the likelihood of receiving very public ridicule should he fail.

Likewise, sometimes employees are asked to take on “stretch assignments” at work that require new tasks or responsibilities and represent a significant departure from employees’ “comfort zones.” Stretch assignments may provoke stress-related emotions as employees contemplate doing something that they don’t feel qualified or competent to do, potentially resulting in job withdrawal or stunted professional development. On the other hand, employees for whom stretch assignments elicit positive emotions may experience the opposite effects.2 As instructors, sometimes we are asked to teach classes that lie outside of our comfort zones. What should we do when offered stretch teaching assignments? As it turns out, I experienced this recently.

I work in a business school. I have written about the challenges and opportunities of moving from a psychology department to a business school in Max. Classroom Capacity. Although there are many things to love about life in a business school, I did not expect that teaching courses in business would be one. And by business, I mean ALL of business: not just HR and management, but also finance, economics, operations, marketing, and so forth—many topics about which I know almost nothing! When I was asked to teach this course, I got very nervous—as a psychology BSc, MA, and PhD student, I had never taken a business class. Talk about imposter syndrome! What if a student asks me to explain return on equity? Contribution margin? Product life cycle management? Would I have any credibility, given that many students would have taken more business classes than I? This situation doesn’t just happen to I-Os in business schools either. Instructors in psychology departments are sometimes asked to teach courses that are outside of their comfort zones. For example, I taught classes on Social Psych, Learning and Motivation, and Developmental Psych, all of which were a stretch for me, at least in part. Many of you likely have taught a MUCH broader range of courses than this. Moreover, academic jobs can be difficult to find, and I-Os end up in all kinds of odd nooks and crannies in institutions of higher ed, teaching all kinds of classes.

Although uncomfortable and scary, there’s a lot to be gained from these “stretch” teaching assignments. It is now my 2nd semester of teaching this MBA-level Introduction to Business course. I am surprised to report that I am enjoying it, and for some reasons that I didn’t expect.

First, I realized that few academics have expertise across all areas of business. Full-time faculty tend to be highly specialized, to put it mildly. If others have been successful teaching this class before, why couldn’t I? Coming out of graduate school, where I was surrounded by successful and accomplished faculty and peers, my lack of experience was always very salient to me. If there was a consulting opportunity or someone from the media seeking an expert to comment on an issue, my first thought was of the people who I knew who knew more about that topic than me! It took me many years to realize that although invariably there are and always will be people with more expertise on any given I-O topic, I still know more about I-O psychology than 99.99% of people (if you are reading TIP, you are likely to be in the same nerdy boat), and usually those are the people asking for help. In sum, don’t let fear of not knowing enough make you forget how much you do know. This realization has made me much more open to accepting stretch assignments, to my benefit, in my teaching, consulting, and research. Now I go out of my way to find work (e.g., teaching a course in business!) that pushes me out of my comfort zone because it’s just so much more fun and interesting to face new challenges and learn and grow than it is to keep doing the same old things.

Second, I recalled a lesson learned early in my career. In the summer after my 1st year of grad school, I taught a developmental psych class with mostly nursing students, many of whom were older than me and had kids of their own. I quickly realized that I could not bluff my way through the experience. I remember exactly how this played out. The first class was a disaster! I was intimidated by these adult students who described years of experience working with kids or taking care of their own kids. I overcompensated by trying to present theories using very “academic” sounding language to show them how smart and in charge I was, and it just felt completely awkward and false! They asked me simple, practical questions in that first class that I couldn’t answer because of my lack of experience with actual infants and babies. This could not go on! The next class, which was the very next day, I walked into the room and said to them, in so many words:

I’m a 25-year-old grad student studying I-O psychology. I don’t have kids. Unlike many of you, I have neither work nor personal experiences with babies that I can talk about. However, I have taken several developmental psychology classes, I understand psychological theories, and I understand research. Here’s what I propose: I will present theories and research on developmental psychology; you all will provide the examples and experiences that will bring the theories and research to life, and together, we are all going to have a great time learning from each other!

That class turned out to be one of my best teaching experiences! I think the students appreciated my candor and vulnerability. Maybe they took pity on me, too. But I also think that the strange circumstance that made clear to students that “this class won’t work without you” put the onus on them to take responsibility for their own and each other’s learning, which they did. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this approach, but we made it work. I learned a lot about this group of students and stayed in touch with several of them for years afterward. We would get together every so often to grab a few beers at 69 Taps in Akron, Ohio. One student from that class, Curtis Walker Jr., went on to complete his PhD in I-O psychology. It was a great class! Key takeaway: You don’t have to know everything to teach successfully, but you do have to find ways to compensate for your lack of knowledge.

My third reason for enjoying teaching a business course is that I rely on guest lecturers3 as a solution to the problem of needing to cover areas of business that are well beyond my expertise. Relying on the support of more knowledgeable and experienced colleagues is a great way to manage a stretch assignment. However, there are lots of reasons to contemplate bringing guest lecturers into your classroom, even when you aren’t teaching a stretch class.

  • Outside experts bring different experiences and expertise that can enrich student learning.
  • Guest lecturers who are practicing I-O psychologists or HR/OD professionals have experiences that may open a window into the world of work and provide students with helpful career guidance or inspiration.
  • Students may appreciate hearing from different voices, views, and perspectives.
  • Guest lecturers can change the social dynamics within the classroom and provide variety and zest.
  • Bringing in a guest lecturer allows room for different modes of instructional delivery, such as an interview or debate.
  • Guest lecturers may serve as inspiration for you as the instructor, highlighting new ways to frame issues, new perspectives on theories and practices, and different presentation skills and styles.
  • Reaching out to guest lecturers is a great way to expand your professional network and build bridges with other academics, practitioners, community members, and others.
  • You might learn something! I often pick up little nuggets of ideas from guest lecturers that help me rethink some of my own practices as an instructor or develop new research questions.

However, I have also encountered some practical challenges to consider when contemplating bringing in guest lecturers:

  • Scheduling can be tricky. Teaching at night makes it much easier. Having a flexible schedule can make it easier to bring in busy professionals. However, reshuffling your syllabus to accommodate a guest lecturer can create continuity and sequencing problems with how you present material.
  • Contingency planning is important. What will you do if there’s a no-show? From someone who has had guest lecturers cancel at the last moment, it’s a good idea to have a backup plan!
  • It is important to articulate to the guest your expectations for their presentation, what they should expect in terms of student knowledge, experiences, ability to complete any preparatory assignments, and so on.

I always ask students for their feedback after each guest lecturer. This helps me to calibrate what I look for in a guest lecturer with students’ expectations and needs. It also helps when a guest lecture doesn’t go well and shows that you’re invested in students’ success.

I would love to hear from you about your stretchiest of stretch teaching assignments! Please write me with your thoughts, comments, and critiques: Loren.Naidoo@CSUN.edu.

Notes

1Counterpoint: As a “traditional big man,” Tristan Thompson is not known for taking a lot of long-distance shots. However, he did shoot a lot of (15-foot) free throws, making about 50%, and you are never more on the spot as a basketball player than when the game clock has stopped and you are all by yourself shooting shots that are so undefended as to be called “FREE” throws.

2 See Dong et al., 2014, for example.

3 By guest lecturer, I mean an outside expert who can speak to a particular issue in your class, whether or not they do so by lecturing.

Reference

Dong, Y., Seo, M., & Bartol, K. M. (2014). No pain, no gain: An affect-based model of developmental job experience and the buffering effects of emotional intelligence. Academy of Management Journal, 57(4), 1056–1077. https://doi-org.libproxy.csun.edu/10.5465/amj.2011.0687

 

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