Friday, May 8, 2015

Close of Class

So maybe my silence this semester was in part due to the fact that I taught my first full class. Or maybe not... either way I learned a lot about how I like (and don't like) to teach.

Step 1) Choose a great topic. Done.  Ecological Developmental Biology.  What a great thing to discuss! We dove into fascinating ideas and hypotheses that spanned multiple biological disciplines. How do new phenotypes come about? What determines an individual's fitness? Is everything that determines who we are really in the genome?

Step 2) Teach with people you like.  Done.  I got to co-teach the course with Dr. Henry John-Alder, the chair of the Ecology and Evolution Department. As a seasoned vet at teaching, I felt comfortable diving into a new course - my first new course. He also knew all of the endocrinology that I glaze over.

Step 3) Let the learning begin... hum. My goals for the course were not to memorize content or understand the mechanics of gene expression. My goals for the course were more a change in perspective - introducing a new way of thinking about old problems. The environment doesn't just work as an agent of SELECTION on existing variation, it can also contribute to CREATING VARIATION.  While an amputated limb will not be inherited between generations, there are some traits acquired within a lifespan that CAN be inherited. The genome is a set of bases (ATGC) that serves as a starting point for something more dynamic - the development of an individual - with methylation, acetylation, transcription factor binding, microRNAs, long RNAs, and a mix of other things we don't even know about yet.

How do we teach new perspectives? Pedagogically, I don't know the answer. Our approach, right or wrong, was exposure followed by synthesis and application to their own research areas. I think some of it may have actually worked.

Step 4) Wait in the silence. A discussion based course requires, well... discussion. It is easy for us professors to fill any silence by listening to ourselves talk.  Oh, how professors love to listen to themselves!  It took me a while to accept the silence and wait for a student to fill it. But by the end, we had some excellent discussions that convinced me that the students were actually listening, reading and learning throughout the semester!

Step 5)  What I think we (or at least I) failed on was teaching some of the non-technical skills - presentations, writing summaries, meeting deadlines, promptness. Throughout the semester, these were things that drove me crazy... and I enabled. Any student reading this -- for all future courses, a deadline is a deadline. Miss it and I might not accept the assignment or I might dock a grade.  Why should I have do something on the weekend or at night because you missed your deadline? No more.  On a more positive note, tips and tricks for writing and presenting will become part of all future courses as well. Feedback, feedback, feedback.  I think having a multi-step final paper/proposal with drafts that received extensive feedback was valuable to everyone involved.

Step 6) A glass of wine to read through the final products of a good semester.

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