Faculty should take courses that are outside their discipline for professional as well as personal reasons (opinion)

One of the benefits that 98 percent of colleges and universities offer their faculty and staff members is tuition remission. At some institutions, that means the faculty and staff, as well as their family members, can take classes and pay no tuition — or pay it at a significantly lower rate. Many take advantage of this benefit to send their children to college for free.

But I argue for something different: that faculty members use this opportunity to take classes themselves. I have frequently done that at my university. While I’m a math professor, I’ve signed up for classes such as Cults in the U.S., Gender and Sexuality, and Serial Murderers (among more mainstream courses like chemistry). I’m writing this piece based on my own experiences and enjoyment in taking such courses over the years.

Tuition remission programs can give us the opportunity to enter fields in which we haven’t taken a class since our undergraduate days, if at all. Many of us went into our fields and chose teaching because of a love of learning, and this opportunity allows us to take classes just for learning’s sake. Also, each course can become a firsthand lesson about different teaching techniques. Many of us continue to seek professional development to help become better instructors. Though you might not actively sign up for another professor’s course with this in mind, you will start to find yourself borrowing techniques from other courses and implementing them in your own classroom.

Pushing yourself beyond a field you know well as an expert to one in which you might be classified as a novice can also do wonders for escaping your comfort zone. Taking a class in a discipline with which you are not familiar may force you to ask questions when you don’t know an answer or are confused. This switches your role from giver, disseminator or guide to receiver and questioner. And while many of us may feel uncomfortable asking for help, it can have many benefits. Stanley C. Ross refers to it as the “road to self-leadership development” in the title of his book on the topic. And Donald J. Beaudette and Elizabeth A. Nolan even call it the “key to career success” in their journal article “Asking for Help.”

By taking another professor’s class, we also can see our students in a new environment as well as be seen by them in a different role. Watching a student who struggled in our discipline strive and succeed in another will remind us that everyone has their strengths and weaknesses.

Similarly, when your students see you, their instructor, studying topics outside your area of expertise, it will make you seem more human and approachable. It will also serve as a model of perseverance and openness to new ideas.

Taking the role of a student in a classroom of your students, taught by one of your peers, can significantly broaden your perspective, as well. Everyone is in a new and different dynamic than what you are used to. The professor of the class may be a colleague with whom you’ve clashed on committee work but whom you are now seeing in their element. Hopefully, this will lead to mutual respect between colleagues and allow you to get to know people you’ve never interacted with before. That could also lead to new interdisciplinary research opportunities.

In addition, if the courses you teach are usually lecture and the course you are taking is discussion-based, you will hear more about students’ private lives. While we sometimes feel as if students already tell us too much about their personal lives, it’s worth being reminded that they are real people with their own struggles.

One last significant positive aspect that comes from faculty members taking classes outside their discipline is that it makes us better teachers. I’ve already mentioned how taking a such a course can be like a mini professional development conference. But what’s more, seeing our students in other classes besides our own can remind us that they not only have personal lives but also homework, tests, papers and so forth outside our course. Many times, we selfishly think that our class should come first for students — and they, of course, don’t always agree. This can also cause us to be more lenient on due dates since we are reminded about the personal and educational responsibilities our students are juggling because we, ourselves, are finding that we need to make time for the demands placed on us in our student role. At the end of the day, we want our students to complete the assignment and learn the material; it’s usually not the end of the world if it’s turned in a day or two late.

There are, of course, some drawbacks to taking courses outside our disciplines. Some faculty may be uncomfortable with the situation — whether taking a class from a colleague or teaching a colleague. But again, that moment of vulnerability can have more advantages than drawbacks.

Although this essay has only considered the faculty side of tuition remission benefits, many of the same colleges and universities also offer similar benefits to staff members. And signing up for such courses can give them a new and broader perspective on the academic side of the campus. In short, regardless of your job on the campus, the advantages of taking classes for free on a topic you know little to nothing about can only do good things for your career and your life.

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