Thursday, March 10, 2011

"No special skills are needed"

"Anyone with a basic knowledge can teach introductory biology. No special skills are needed. In the eyes of these people, a postdoc could do it, a grad student could do it. Heck, even [National Academy member who won't be named] could do it."

I was talking with M______, the department's vice-chair for teaching, about instructors for introductory biology in the Fall quarter of next year. M_______'s situation is not happy. The upper echelons of the university administration are preventing her from using lecturers, who have done the majority of intro bio teaching. M______ summarized their rationale, above. "Why," these administrators wonder, "should we be throwing away money on lecturers when we have these faculty who don't teach enough, and grad students who need to work for their keep?"

I make a point of watching other professors at work--it's a way for me to learn what to do better (and what to avoid). Last week I watched K____ delivering a lecture on energetics to an audience of almost 500 students. She made no stunning revelations about what is (truthfully) pretty simple material. However, she showed amazing skill in presenting material in an interactive and engaging and effective manner. Everything in her presentation was engineered to compel students to stay awake and engaged with the material. This kind of lecture is not the fruit of some natural gift; it is the result of careful study and LOTS of work. Having worked with K_____'s students in other classes, I know that she's effective.

I also watched J___ giving a lecture to a similar audience. J___ is the rare researcher who gives a rat's ass about teaching. He has been heroic about reforming the introductory bio classes in the face of unbelievably intense opposition. He's a brilliant geneticist and a deep thinker. He's not a bad lecturer, either--but he's not in the same league as K____. He is not quite as skilled as she, because he has not focused on teaching with the same intensity as K____ . The intensely curious and highly motivated would thrive in his class, but those adjectives don't describe most of the 500 students in the hall. As I watched, I saw plenty of students texting, watching videos, browsing the web, doing homework for other classes, and so on.

Next year, I probably won't be at the University; K____'s contract has been "non-renewed" as part of the purge of lecturers, and J___ is retiring soon. However, like any year, there will be a few thousand students needing introductory biology--a class that every other class in their majors will build on. But the administration is serene. They'll find someone to give all these students a sound foundation in the sciences. After all, no special skills are needed to teach introductory biology.

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