Teaching Lessons

Oh blog.

I’ve been neglecting you.

But I had a good reason. It involves that whole career-development-thing.

My dining room table was covered in books for the last couple of weeks instead of tasty delights.

(Somehow David Lebovitz’s The Perfect Scoop sneaked into my pile of microbiology, biochemistry and genetics textbooks…)

Part of academic life involves teaching. Most would think that it primarily involves teaching – and while that’s true for some institutions (think liberal arts colleges), the research institutions mostly hire you for your research potential and teaching is almost an afterthought. Now as a grad student, I was indoctrinated with thinking that going the Research I Track is the only way to go. But as a post-doc, I’ve been re-thinking that stance. For a whole host of reasons (some of which I’ve discussed before).

So, in weighing my potential career options, I’ve contemplated moving in a more teaching-oriented direction. The problem is, I have very little actual teaching experience. Sure, I’ve TA’ed a number of times, both while I was in college and while I was in grad school. I’ve got no problem standing in front of a crowd of earnest undergrads and talking science. In fact, I feed off of the attention, much in the same way I love speaking publicly about my research. But to put together a series of 75 minute lectures? Organizing and picking through the lecture content, deciding what the youth of this country should know and be responsible for? That I hadn’t the faintest idea about.

Now, I am a sort of baptism-by-fire kind of girl. Sure, I could have taken a class (both the University of Minnesota and Duke have Preparing Future Faculty courses, which teach you about teaching), but at this point in my life, I think I actually learn better by doing than by sitting in a class. I mean, that’s how I learned how to cook, sew and knit.

So I spent the past couple of weeks teaching. I am lucky in the fact that my post-doc mentor is completely supportive of non-research I track careers and pointed me to this particular teaching opportunity. A lecturer position for part of the summer section of Microbiology for juniors and seniors. Prepare and deliver four lectures on microbial molecular biology and genetics and one god-awful lecture on energetics and catabolism, write and grade one homework assignment and one exam. Oh, and I would get some dollars for it (which helps make a dent in my upcoming travel plans).

I’ve written before about my nature to self-reflect. And so I feel the need to assess how my first real teaching experience went and the lessons I learned.

The short version? I liked it. I was pretty good at it, but could improve. Definitely a career option.

Here’s the longer version.

1) Teaching is hard work.

I spent a lot of time (hence the lack of blogging) preparing lectures, delivering lectures, writing homework, grading homework, writing the exam, grading the exams. There were a couple of things that were not in my favor; a) I had to prepare my lectures from scratch and b) this was a microbiology course, meaning it was mostly focused on bacteria and not so much on eukaryotes (my preferred cellular model). So I had to re-learn some things along the way.

Which leads me to lesson number 2.

2) It turns out that I have learned something in my 20+ years of schooling.

(Yikes! Over 20 years of being a student! What is wrong with me?)

I was initially concerned about not being a formally trained microbiologist and teaching a course in microbiology. And then I realized that I just need to know more than the students. It turns out that learning something for the 27th time is waaaay easier than learning it for the first time. Somewhere along the way, I kind of just absorbed this stuff. My dear friend (our friendship dates back to high school) Kristina was in Minneapolis last weekend and we were talking about this sort of thing. (Kristina a fancy medical doctor, btw). How it seems like these kids are so much smarter than we are. But it is really that these kids are trying to prove that they know all of this stuff, whereas we, older, wiser and over-educated beings have incorporated this information into ourselves and synthesize it without even realizing it.

It used to be that reading textbooks would undoubtedly put me to sleep. I remember many a night during college, in the library with Alberts’ Molecular Biology of the Cell – most of which with my eyes closed. It seemed so dense and teeming with details beyond belief. And now I read it and it seems overly simplistic. That’s perspective for you. Not that I wasn’t glad to have all my old textbooks with me while I was putting together my lectures.

3) I felt a huge weight of responsibility for educating the youth of this country.

This was the first time that I actually felt like I was completely in charge. No longer was I a student, just helping out the professor, but a bonafide lecturer. Kids referred to me as “Dr. Hickman” and looked to me to tell them what they should know. It is a huge responsibility. At least I felt so. What sort of details should they be know about the mechanism of transcription that are fundamental and what are just interesting? How do you pace the lecture so that you get through the needed material but allow the student to absorb it? 75 minutes is a hard period to plan for.

4) I have very mixed feelings about the use of Powerpoint.

The course director who hired me for this course asked that I provide lecture outlines to the students the afternoon before my lecture. I can understand why this can be a good idea – we had a lot of material to get through and powerpoint is an easy way to get through it all. However, I felt it curbed my creativity and limited me having a dynamic interactions with the students. I think that I would rather go old school and chalkboard it in the future. For two reasons. 1) It forces the kids to take notes and not passively read slides and 2) it slows down how quickly you go through the material. You can also more easily identify what are the really important take home points and which details are strictly for amusements sake.

5) Each class of students is different.

I don’t like making sweeping generalizations, but I am going to anyways (with an n=3, no less). But these students at UMN seemed so very Midwestern. Just like everybody else in this city. Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised, I am in the Midwest afterall. But these kids where just so quiet. I eventually got them to answer the questions I posed during class, but they hardly pestered me outside of class. No emails asking to meet with me, no nagging about when they would get their homework back and amazingly, no emails arguing about their exam scores. What’s with that? The Duke kids were pushy beyond belief and the Evergreen kids were just into talking about and thinking about science. But these kids were just so quiet. Put your head down, do your work, accept your scores and don’t ask questions. Like I said, midwestern. It made it amazingly difficult to gauge how I was doing.

6) Writing exams is more difficult than taking exams.

How many questions do you ask? What type of questions should they be? Multiple choice, true/false, short-answer, critical thinking? Have you covered the material fairly? Is it too easy? Are the questions clear? Is it too long? Talk about nerve-wracking. I was advised (the day before I started lecturing) that I should write the exam prior to giving my lectures – so that I know what to emphasize during class. I didn’t have time to do this, this time around, but I think it is something to try in the future.

And I learned the hard way that a well written question (even if it covers an advanced topic) is much easier to grade than a poorly written one. And grading the exams was nearly as painful as writing it and took approximately seven times longer than I though it would. Which reiterates point #1.

7) There is no way that I want to be a full-time teacher and a full-time researcher.

It’s not hard to do a lot of things. It is, however, hard to do a lot of things well. Perhaps the most important lesson I learned is that I don’t want to stretch myself to thin. I would rather do fewer things really well than struggle to get a lot of things done. I think I could be a really good teacher if I could devote all of my time for it. I think that I could be a really top-notch researcher if I devoted all of my time to it. I do NOT think that I could be a really good teacher AND a top-notch researcher. Or maybe I could, but then I would have nothing else going on in my life. No cooking, no hobbies, no family. And what kind of life is that?

Okay. I am sure that I have learned more lessons than that, but that’s all I’ve got for now. It was an educational experience about education, for sure.

Now it’s time for some big career decisions.

And some more cooking.

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One response to “Teaching Lessons

  1. Regarding #5, I suspect it isn’t so much that UMN is midwestern as that it’s a typical public university, unlike Duke, which is private and exclusive, or Evergreen, which is public but unconventional (for want of a better word, and no disrespect intended; it surely attracts a different kind of student than the ones who flock to UW and WSU). The students I taught at UC Davis and Santa Barbara – and I taught hundreds of them in three departments – were generally very passive. (Colleagues of mine complained about the pushiness of the pre-meds, but I never taught those classes.)

    Teaching is indeed hard work if you take it seriously. The last time I taught was a month of lectures on evolutionary quantitative genetics for graduate students at Madison. It was absolutely a full-time job for that month.

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