Saturday, August 30, 2008

Questioning the system

Well, the Oreo activity hasn't happened yet, but my first lab sessions didn't totally freak me out, and none of the students walked out in disgust. I guess that means I'm doing well so far! (The first lab sessions are always hand-out-the-syllabus, anyway, which isn't particularly strenuous.)

I am questioning the general universe as to how I ended up with a Friday afternoon lab composed entirely of males, several of whom were obviously eying me with the "Hey, look, a chick. My good looks and charming nature are obviously going to get me an easy A." (Or something to that effect but less eloquent.) Good thing lab is only once every two weeks - half the crap to put up with. And, fortunately, they give us a roster with everybody's photos on it, so I can at least use their names when I tell them to cut the crap and do their work. (Honestly, I think they'll behave, but just in case...)

At any rate, starting my TA duties has made me think about the way that a geologist - or most any kind of scientist - becomes a teacher as well. It's one of the great failings of the sciences, in my opinion, that scientists who also want to become academics receive very little formal training in how to be a teacher. K-12 teachers, in most cases, receive extensive training, and usually have a degree in education and are formally certified. But scientists who teach, unless they spend time as a TA, or take classes on their own initiative, are not expected to go through the same rigorous training. They are, instead, dropped into a classroom setting and expected to know how to handle students, write lesson plans and syllabi, create exams, and oversee the education of possibly hundreds of young people who have been steeped in an entirely different method of learning. (I had exactly three days of "training" in a conference that was so generalized as to be somewhat useless to someone who's teaching in a lab setting, although it was really helpful to be exposed to some modern theories of education.)

What's more, the situation is self-perpetuating. Academic scientists succeed in their fields because they can excel in the lecture-based classroom, and when it comes time for them to teach, they tend to utilize the methods of the instructors they learned the most from. Perhaps some learned more from a professor who used active learning techniques, or some other alternative than lecture, but at some point they all end up teaching with lectures.

How in the world did we end up with a system like this? My college roommate, who now teaches high school chemistry, had to spend her senior year completing the equivalent of a masters in education, do weeks of supervised student teaching, and obtain a state certification before she could take on a classroom. I, on the other hand, will be plunked in a lecture hall with hundreds of undergrads and expected to develop a syllabus, lesson plans and testing strategy with practically no training (if I decide to become a professor someday). I certainly don't think that having a Ph.D. makes me more qualified than her to be a teacher, but our current system of academia does - at least as far as university-level education is concerned.

(Not to mention that I'm already totally, irrationally nervous about my teaching abilities in the first place. If I'm this insecure about being a TA, what the heck would happen to me if I did decide to become a professor somewhere? I'm sure it would be mitigated somewhat by the TA experience, but being an assistant and being the instructor are very different positions.)

So, geoblogosphere, what are your opinions? Do you think you were properly prepared for your teaching responsibilities, or would you have appreciated having formal training like a K-12 educator is expected to? Why do we still have this situation in academia, and what are your ideas about fixing it?


hypocentre said...

I certainly had no training when I started. At reunions, the students who had to suffer my first lecture still rib me about how nervous I was. Don't worry, it will get easier quite quickly.

It didn't help that I was given some notes from the previous lecturer and the level they were pitched at was way too high for the class - I just knew halfway through I was going to lose my class. I learnt to write my own lectures VERY quickly.

In the UK we do get a training of sorts now. At my university new staff and postgraduate demonstrators now have to complete a Teaching and Learning in Higher Education course.

The best piece of advice I was given was "If you run out of things to say - shut up!". No-one ever complained about finishing class a few minutes early, they do if you keep rambling on.

A Life Long Scholar said...

It is an odd system! But it is also one I, personally, find quite comfortable, having spent far longer than "normal" as an undergraduate (the plan of "being a student forever" will do that to a person). By the time I made it to graduate school myself, I already had a good idea of what I liked and didn't like in teaching styles, and was able to apply it, despite my lack of formal training.

Ron Schott said...

On the one hand I agree with your premise, because it was my experience, too. But knowing that I wanted to get an academic job as early as my freshman year of college, I did make an effort to observe my own teachers methods and I'd like to think that I learned many valuable lessons about teaching as much as geology from them.

On another level, though, I never learned a lot of the cutting edge pedagogical approaches (or at least the thinking behind them) until I had the good fortune to discover resources such as SERC and the NAGT Cutting Edge Workshops. I can't say enough good things about these wonderful resources. Investigate and take advantage of them - you will be a better teacher for it.

Silver Fox said...

One thing that helped me when first TA'ing Op Min and Petrography labs, was to sit in on the professor's lectures, even though I theoretically knew all about the stuff I was teaching. It helped me see exactly where the class stood with respect to what they were learning and what they understood. Rather than teaching just lab methods, I ended up teaching some of the basics to supplement the class, to make sure the lecture wasn't over their heads (which it was much of the time).

It was an odd way to start things - especially for someone (me) who had avoided even giving reports in classes - but fortunately the second lab section was taught by a grad who had taught the previous year, so I had some guidelines - and then the second year I taught, I was in the "lead" position with a new grad.