Thursday, October 7, 2010

Some good, some bad, net zero

Next quarter I'll be team teaching a couple of classes with Scott Dawson. It will be a new class for me, "Microbial Diversity," and I'm looking forward to it for a couple of reasons. One is that I like the subject matter a great deal, so it will give me an excuse to dig into the literature a bit more. The other is that I like Scott, and he is of a like mind on how to approach teaching.

When I started teaching, I had very little formal education on how to teach--I spent a term TAing for Jo Handelsman at Madison, and she takes the time to train her TAs. I then went to Kalamazoo, where there was an optional afternoon seminar that I attended before teaching undergrads for a year. Here at Davis, I sat in on a ten-week seminar on college teaching while I was postdocking. When I started doing classes here, there was no need for a demonstration of any skills before I started lecturing before a class of 400 undergrads. Every single bit of training that I had was optional, and nobody ever really probed my ability to teach. For all that, I had vastly more training than the average junior faculty looking into the eyes of her first class. Faculty are trained for, and hired for, and promoted and tenured for one thing--research.

This is true of Dr. Dawson. However, he is serious about teaching. He has taken the time to learn something about what works and what does not, and he's attended the HHMI summer science teaching institute. As part of this commitment, he's teaching a graduate class in Microbiology for TAs on how to be a teacher. Because of his relative inexperience, he's asked me to sit in and provide sage advice. There's about a dozen grad students (and one postdoc) in the class, and it is positively refreshing to see them taking the subject seriously. They are going through some of the latest work on the subject, and they will be designing lessons aimed at teaching lower division students tricky concepts. Gratifyingly, they'll actually get to teach a classroom full of students, who will evaluate their efforts, before they are given the responsibility of teaching a class for real. You would be surprised at just how radical the notion of TAs and lecturers who know how to teach is on the average college campus. So, a few steps forward.

But there are steps back too. I also talked with Dr. G this week; like me, she is a lecturer, and the university considers her efforts (teaching 1500 undergraduates introductory biology every year) "part time work". Like me and Dr. Dawson, she's committed to modern notions of scientific teaching, and she has done incredible work here to update the teaching of introductory biology; she's even written her own textbook for the class.

To the university, her salary is an unsustainable expense. Her contract won't be renewed at the end of this academic year. It's not clear just how introductory biology will be taught in her absence. No sane faculty member wants to pick this up, and the university has essentially decreed that there will be no more lecturers. Worse for the students, there is intense reactionary pressure to abandon the more effective teaching techniques she has introduced, and go back to memorizing every atom of the Krebs cycle. It is really, really hard to be optimistic about undergraduate biology education here.

To avoid ending on a down note, I'll mention that--three weeks into the quarter--I finally have an office. Well, it's not all mine really, it belongs to an emeritus faculty and it's full of his books and files. But the desk is nicely cleared off.

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