An Outline of “Nice Work If You Can Get It”

An Outline of “Nice Work If You Can Get It” December 10, 2023

I am currently starting the process of finding a literary agent for the teaching memoir that has been the primary focues of my soon-to-be-over sabbatical. A few blog readers have been asking me questions about the book–here is an annotated outline of the book (the sort of thing literary agents and prospective publishers always want to see). Let me know if this strikes you as a book you would want to read!

Nice Work If You Can Get It: Stories and Lessons from a Lifetime in the Classroom 

Chapter Outline 

Between each chapter I have included a “Classroom Interlude,” a 4-5 page story centered in actual class interaction and discussion intended to illustrate how classroom dynamics develop in real time. Each interlude is focused on the primary text being discussed on the day in question, texts ranging from classical texts (Aristotle, Plato, Epictetus, Dante, and more) to contemporary authors such as Philip Hallie and Michael Sandel. 

Introduction: Asking the Right Questions

In this introduction I identify both the purpose and the focus of the book by identifying several aspects of my own teaching experience that make my voice and my classroom experience distinctive. This is followed by my perspective on why the humanities and a liberal arts education are crucially important, followed by a first take on the special and rewarding nature of the teaching life.

Sections: What This Book Is; Why the Humanities?; The Greatest Gig Ever

Chapter 1. Nice Work If You Can Get It

In Chapter 1 I provide what I consider to be several of the essential attitudes that are necessary in order to be a successful facilitator of the life of learning. This include the importance of being a guide rather than the focus of attention, understanding that committing to the process of lifetime learning is an essential component of moral growth, and the ways in which the process of learning can be undermined by both cynicism and chosen ignorance.

Sections: Idols and Icons; Learning as a Moral Problem; Combatting Cynicism; Combatting Ignorance

Classroom Interlude 1—Accept the Anchor

Chapter 2. Learning To Teach 

One of my most important, and perhaps most controversial, claims in this book is that one cannot be taught to be an effective teacher. Although one can certainly be taught to be an effective purveyor of information, the ability to inspire in the classroom is something one is born with. I seek to establish this point in Chapter 2 through a number of personal stories about my own odyssey from inexperienced neophyte to experienced practitioner in the classroom. I also seek to establish that effective teaching is intimately linked to effective storytelling and complete transparency—something I develop using both personal vignettes and foundational texts from my own discipline of philosophy.

Sections: Learning Through Imitation; Telling Stories; Living the Stereotype: Lighten Up!; Words and Facts; A Seminal Story

Classroom Interlude 2—Tolerance on Steroids

Chapter 3. The Learning Process: Identifying and Using the Tools of Lifetime Learning

In this chapter I describe and develop a framework for thinking about the life of learning that I use regularly in the classroom. I ask students to imagine the life of learning as requiring various tools for various tasks, just as a mechanic or carpenter uses different tools for different tasks. Each person is naturally equipped with a “moral tool bag” in which these tools are contained, but we often are unaware of what is in the tool bag. My job as a teacher is to help students identify the various tools in their tool bag, then to help them learn how to use them effectively. Using Socrates as a continuing example, I identify several of these basic tools in this chapter and demonstrate their importance in the moral life and life of learning.

Sections: A Model Lifetime Learner; The Art of Discussion; Comfort is Overrated; The Nature of Truth; The Nature of Evidence

Classroom Interlude 3—An Avoidable Form of Death

Chapter 4. Preparation

A generally reliable rule of thumb in college teaching is that the professor spends three to four hours with class-related work outside of class for every hour in class. A good deal of that out-of-class time is spent on class preparation. This chapter focuses on the dynamic of preparing for teaching, both before a semester in syllabus preparation and on a daily basis during the semester. I focus directly on the difference in designing and preparing for a class in which I am the only teacher and the same activities when teaching with anywhere from one to three teammates.

Sections: The Tongue of a Teacher; Preparing the Road Map; Teaching with Others; The First Day of Class

Classroom Interlude 4—The Hungry Person’s Bread

Chapter 5. Sorry for the Inconvenience—Life with Students

Some of the most important learning experiences for both students and professors take place outside of the classroom on campus. This chapter focuses on various aspects of teacher/student interactions during office hours, impromptu out-of-class conversations, and email communication by providing extended real life examples of such interactions.

Sections: Students Say the Darndest Things; Office Hours; “Can I schedule an appointment for Friday? Please?”; Education by Email; Don’t be a Jerk

Classroom Interlude 5—Come In, and Come In

Chapter 6. The Lady Macbeth School of Leadership

During my decades as an academic, I have had the opportunity to take leadership positions both as department chair and director of a large interdisciplinary program required of all students regardless of major. This chapter explores the ups and downs, the pitfalls and successes, of seeking to be an effective leader of fellow academics, an aspect of the academic life that teachers often are required to take on in addition to their teaching responsibilities.

Sections: Hedgehogs and Foxes; The Art of Diplomatic Persuasion; Entertaining Angels; Delegating Authority; In the Trenches; Taking the “Ass” Out of Assessment; Be Careful What You Ask For

Classroom Interlude 6—How to Be Good

Chapter 7.  Campus Life Outside the Classroom

In this chapter, I expand my discussion to include the ways in which campus life beyond the classroom has a direct impact on the life of a teacher. These ways include committee work and involvement with important campus initiatives. Central to this chapter is the extended story of my involvement with the successful development and planning of, then participation in, an all-campus event in which one of the most controversial moral issues of our time was under public discussion.

Sections: The Most Powerful Committee on Campus; Comfortable in My Bewilderment; Diversity; Difficult Dialogues: A Success Story; When People of Good Faith Disagree

Classroom Interlude 7— Death is Nothing Terrible

Chapter 8. What I Do When I am Not on Campus

Here I address two important features of a professor’s life that non-academics are either unaware of or don’t understand the value of if they are aware of them: academic conferences and sabbatical. This chapter, perhaps more than any other chapter, entirely depends on my own experiences. Unlike many academics, I do not love academic conferences. Accordingly, my stories related to conferences are of benefits and lessons learned in spite of my natural aversion. My sabbatical stories are not intended to argue that academics deserve a benefit such as sabbatical more than anyone else, but rather seek to support the idea that a humane understanding of full time work should include the importance of sabbatical.

Sections: Academic Conferences—an important and necessary evil; A Conference Story; Why Sabbatical is a Good Idea; Making Sabbatical Work; How to Fit Sabbatical and Your Personality Together

Classroom Interlude 8— A Modest Proposal

Chapter 9. And Now For Something Completely Different

The final chapter is a detailed account of teaching remotely during the Covid-19 pandemic. As I say in the chapter, I was the guy who always said he was glad he was old enough that he would never have to teach online. Then in March 2020 he had to learn how to teach online in five days. It’s a specific story of challenges, resilience, and ultimate success as our whole campus retooled from the ground up.

Sections: Spring 2020; Summer 2020; Fall 2020; Spring 2021; Be at Peace

Conclusion: “Whatever” is No Way to Live

In this brief conclusion, I use a letter from a former student to reflect back both on the book and on the more than three decades of my teaching career. I conclude by using an early passage from Dante’s Inferno to express my conviction that, for me at least, a life in the classroom and the life of learning have been the most important and central elements of constructing a meaningful life.

Sections: Being More Than a Visitor


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