#1389: “I am taking over a course from a professor who died. How should I proceed?”

Hello Captain Awkward,

I (she/her) have been asked to take over three large first-year courses after the previous professor died suddenly on the weekend. Our first-year courses run over the full academic year, which is September to April.

The first term was already over and marks had been submitted so nothing has been left undone for me to try and piece together. The university has informed students via email and course announcement so I don’t have to be the one to break the news to them. No one is expecting me to do a thing until term starts in January which is nice.

However, I don’t know how to address this in the first week. I’m a very irreverent teacher – I joke a lot in class, I often relate our course material to Taylor Swift videos, I start every week with an anecdote about my dogs. I’m the sort of prof who dresses like Miss Frizzle and whose hair is a different colour every few weeks. But it feels inappropriate to be that way at the beginning of term when the previous professor has died. 

All the courses have been online – one was asynchronous and the other two were live but over Zoom.

I’m seeking a lot of advice on how to best do this because I think some students will be very upset while other students won’t care much at all. How do you think I should proceed?

Thank you so much,

J. (I have no witty sign offs)

Hello, J., all the sympathies for the sudden loss of your colleague and for the gravity of the task ahead. I think you have great instincts. I’m going to assume that you don’t need help with subject matter or pedagogy, and this is more about how to present yourself, set the right tone, and get the semester underway as smoothly and compassionately as possible.

First, speaking Frizzle-to-Frizzle, I think you’re right to consider adopting a slightly more formal and serious tone and visual style for at least the first few weeks. 

If it helps, think of it as being in France and deciding which version of “you” to call somebody you just met. In the future, the person may instruct you to use the informal tu, but until you know for sure, you’re unlikely to cause actual offense by sticking with vous. It’s much easier to swap your outside business cardigan for an inside hangout cardigan like Mr. Rogers than it is to accidentally start out way too casual and have to recover from a faux pas.

Visually, you don’t need to change anything drastic. Don’t get rid of your fun hair color, but do aim to be one or two notches more polished than whatever informal, exuberant eclecticism had you concerned enough to mention it in your letter. Since you’ll be on camera, look for ways to reduce visual distractions and set yourself up for maximum focus and flow. Is your shirt covered with visible dog hair, logos, or text that people will inevitably get sucked into reading? Did you clean your glasses? Are the plants visible on the bookshelf behind you still alive? Have the half-finished tea mugs on your desk been breeding, and have their efforts been, uh, “fruitful?” Can you quickly put your hands on a pen, your notes, and things you need without having to shift piles of other things or spend time fumbling? If you share your screen, are the tabs and links you actually need already cued up, or will we be taking an unscheduled journey through “147 times I clicked the ‘only one bed’ tag on AO3 and 3 times I didn’t”?

And yes, try to minimize any swearing, off-topic jokes, and other markers of irreverence, at least the first week. Once you’re in the swing of it, chances are high that many students with matching “eff the patriarchy” keychains will appreciate your down-to-earth teaching style and your little dog, too. But out of the gate, what your students need is probably less about “What FUN we’re all going to have together!” and more “Hello, I realize that this is a terrible situation that no one asked for, but I’m a professional, I know what I’m doing, and I’ve got you. The effort you’ve already invested has not been wasted, and together we are going to land this plane safely and on time.” 

Now, during my teaching days, I lost some colleagues before their time, I took over classes that were designed wholesale by someone else (with the lie that “there’s nothing to prepare”), and I’ve taught only the second half of a year-long thing, though never all three at once like you are doing now. So I want to offer some specific ways to aid your preparations. I debated making this part a bonus Patreon post because it’s kind of inside-baseball-y, but we’re already here so we might as well.

Bonus Suggestion #1: You’re going to need to acknowledge the death of your colleague in some way at the start of class, but I suggest pulling some information together first:

  • Is there a planned memorial service at the school? Gather the time, location, etc.
  • Is someone (department chair, department administrator, a colleague who was close to the person) collecting remembrances and stories about the person? If no one is already explicitly doing that, can you think of someone who might reasonably want to?
  • Did you know or work with the person? Can you think of a good memory or something you admired about them?
  • If not, can you peek at their bio, their CV, or glance at a few abstracts of stuff they published to get an idea of what they were about, or recall something nice other people have told you about them?

Depending on what you turn up, you can tailor whatever opening statement you make to students about how you are sorry you are meeting under these circumstances. If you knew the person, say something good that you personally experienced. If you didn’t know them, don’t fake that you did.

Sample for you to adapt: “I wasn’t lucky enough to work with [Departed Colleague], but people who did always mention [knowledge about subject area][dedication to students][unforgettable lecturing style][notoriously rigorous grading practices][uncanny knack for sports analogies]. There will be a memorial service on campus at [provide all logistical information], and if anyone has a memory of working with Professor _______ you’d like to share, you can send it to [person who is collecting such things] or email it to me and I’ll pass it on. As we go along this term, I’m sure we’ll be reminded often of Professor _____, and as sad and heavy as that might feel at times, I hope it can also serve as a reminder that their knowledge and work live on.”

Key points: Acknowledge the loss, try to come up with one genuine compliment, give grieving students something they can do (go to memorial service, share a story), invite them to share thoughts with you if they want to. Don’t assume how they feel, but make space for however they feel, and make it clear that they can bring up the professor and the prior semester in the future in whatever context, because it’s not a forbidden topic. If you organize all the info ahead of time you’ll be less likely to flail. 😉

Bonus Suggestion #2: Sometime during the first or second week, use a short, informal survey to take the temperature of the room and help students put the prior semester in context. How useful this is is going to depend a lot on the subject and type of class, so build one that suits your goals. For example purposes, here’s some stuff I might want students to tell me:

  • Thinking over last term, was there a week or topic that you liked more than others? If “like” is too strong a word, is there a week or topic you remember better than others, something you were more interested in, something you had a knack for, something that was just a good day in class, one “cool” or new thing you learned?
  • What’s a lingering question you have about something you covered last semester? Something you’re still curious about, something you’re still confused about? If you could pick one thing you’d like us to review in depth before we get underway, what would it be?
  • What was your favorite assignment and what was your least favorite assignment? If you don’t have a favorite, go with “worst” and “least worst.” Why did you pick those?
  • Did anyone – either the teacher or a fellow student – give you feedback about your work that you thought was helpful? What did they say?
  • Looking ahead at our syllabus, is there a week or topic you’re looking forward to more than the others? Is there one you’re not so enthused about? 

In the group that meets in real time, you could assign them to break-out chat rooms in small groups and have them talk through the questions together for 10-15 minutes and then report back to the class or upload individual written answers. In the online-only versions you could do it as a forum post or short individual writing assignment they hand in to you. In that case, I’d indicate that you want quick, informal, honest answers and that you only expect it to take 15 minutes or so. Participating (including turning something in or making forum posts) earns positive points toward class participation.

If this works, you’ll come out with a sense of what they valued, what made them feel valued, where they need the most help, and evidence that they’ve consulted the syllabus at least once. If people consistently mention the same best and worst assignments, you can go peek at the grade-book and see what’s up. Maybe look at the two highest grades, the two lowest, and a few in the middle if you feel like you need more info. How’s everybody doing? Does the grading make sense to you? Like, is there a rubric at work here or are you taking over from Professor Vibes?

Bonus Suggestion #3: This is about prep beyond whatever you’ll need to do to update the syllabus and organize yourself to present the material from week to week, which I assume you’ve already got handled.

Once upon a time someone handed me a syllabus and a course website for a hybrid online/in-person class, told me it was “all set” and that I didn’t need to do any prep, and turned me loose on some undergrads. Fortunately I did not believe the “all set” lie, and as I started clicking around on the dense website full of clicky things during my semester break, I discovered something horrible.

This person had recorded and uploaded weekly lectures that had no written transcripts, no ability to speed up or slow down, no way to isolate or review specific topics (such as a list of topics with timestamps so someone could jump to specific sections), no connection to or integration of any assigned reading or hands-on work, and to add insult to injury, *each* of these tedious motherfuckers was between two and three hours long. TWO UNBROKEN, IRREPLACEABLE HOURS of a person droning over a PowerPoint slideshow, but you couldn’t just download or click through the slides at your own pace and be on your way, and you couldn’t ever know when the audio would impart some essential kernel of information that wasn’t on the slides.

I tried watching and listening to a few of them to see if they were all like that. They were all like that. I tried seeing how long I, personally, could pay attention to one of these things, and I think my record was 11 minutes. I tried asking for a PDF of just the slides and was rebuffed. (The person had painstakingly done “all the work” for me! “Online” classes were the future, and I just needed to “adapt” to the “tech” and “pivot to video.”)

I pivoted, all right. I pivoted every last one of those abominations away from anywhere students might encounter them and figured out another, shorter, more organized way to teach the material. And ever since then, whenever I’ve taken over a course website that was designed by someone else, I change my access so I see only what students see, and then I click through the first few weeks as if I’m a student coming in fresh. Can I find everything? Is it easy to figure out what I should look at and in what order? If I were to read what I’m assigned to read and watch what I’m assigned to watch, could I reasonably do everything I’m being asked to do, by the deadline when I’m supposed to do it? Are outside links, articles, etc. working, and are they labeled so it’s clear what they are for and so I could search for something easily if I needed to find it again?

I’ve never inherited anything quite as cursèd* as that one class, but I’ve also never inherited something that didn’t need at least some reworking until it made sense to *me.* This is your class now, for better or for worse, and it is okay  to tinker and make it your own. As for the rest, you’re doing the students and the institution an enormous service by stepping in. It’s likely to be a thankless and unheralded service, where the better you do your job the less they’ll realize how much of a service it was. I don’t envy you, but I do believe in you. You know your shit, and you give a shit, and that’s enough.

*Edited to add: Wait, I forgot about the time that I inherited a syllabus for a scene study class where every single assigned and suggested example and reference clip, without exception, was a case study in #MeToo. Everything this guy showed in class was either directed by an abuser or rapist or starred abusers and rapists, and, if women appeared anywhere on screen, the selected scenes would inevitably show them being ogled, undressed, insulted, humiliated, stalked, assaulted and outright murdered. In some kind of dark Bechdel Test parody, no woman ever made it to the end of a film with both all her clothes on and all her blood inside her own body. So, upon reflection, that may have been the most cursed.