Monday, October 12, 2009

I Could(n't) Teach That

Some of my colleagues and I are divided on a particular issue related to the teaching of undergraduate Science classes for majors. I am talking about the "core" classes that we teach our Science majors: the courses that cover the designated most essential topics in our Science. In most departments, faculty typically teach the core courses closest to their area of research expertise, and perhaps some courses that are sort of related.

CAMP 1. Some of my colleagues think that any one of us could teach any one of these classes. We have all taken these or similar classes as undergraduates, and even though we may not have studied certain topics since that time, we are smart people with broad knowledge of Science and we could each learn enough to teach any undergraduate course in our department.

CAMP 2. Other colleagues think OK, we could teach these courses.. if we had to.. but the courses would not be good because we would not be able to provide the depth of experience that can make a course successful and interesting. Perhaps there are some instances in which a non-specialist approach or perspective would benefit a course (and certainly there are examples of the opposite case in which a specialist of a topic is unable to teach a course well), but in many cases we wouldn't be able to provide much more information than what a smart student could teach themselves by reading a textbook.

I am more in Camp 2 than Camp 1, and I don't think it is just because I live in fear of being asked to teach a course that would require a vast amount of preparation on a topic for which I do not have deep knowledge. I don't mind being outside my comfort zone in terms of knowledge and I love learning new things, but I still don't want to run the experiment to test whether the Camp 1 people are right.

At small colleges, faculty teach a wider range of classes because there are fewer faculty to teach the core classes. That's fine -- I did the same when I taught at a college -- and I am not arguing that we can only teach (well) those courses most directly related to our specific research focus. But I think there are limits to what most of us can reasonably teach well with sufficient depth of knowledge to handle challenging questions, use supporting examples beyond what is in textbooks, and keep up with the latest developments in the field.

Maybe those things aren't important. Those in Camp 1 would argue that we could each master the fundamental concepts of each core class and be able to teach those. OK, sure, we can do that, but again I ask: Would the classes be any good?

This is mostly just a thought exercise, at least at the moment. If hiring freezes continue, however, we may find ourselves in a situation in which core courses need teaching, but the core people have left and not been replaced.


Neeraja said...

May I suggest a 3rd camp? One to which I, as a teacher of a university core course in science, am an ardent member? What I teach is not just "a" science or "my" science (which broadly speaking is the life sciences since I have a masters degree in microbiology though my PhD is in the history of science). The course is called scientific thinking, and is a general first-year course that introduces to, or in some cases refreshes students on, the basic principals of "what is science?" and why it is important.

The camp to which I belong is that science teachers across the board at all levels of seniority and different specific disciplines should be teaching such courses. Not only because they bring their particular perspective to the topic, but also because unless all science departments are invested in such an endeavor, these courses inevitably become nothing more than boxes that students and advisers alike feel need ticking off in a list of requirements. Surely a course that introduces the general principles of scientific thinking and sampling different disciplines would be much more meaningful as a science requirement than a basic course in any one discipline that students take in order to get their science or general education requirement? And surely the best way to ensure scientific literacy in students is to take ownership of the endeavor?

Best wishes,
(Another) female science teacher

Klaas said...

I teach a subject in first year that was my hobby when I was 10-12 but that I haven't touched since. I think it is going just fine (student reviews are great). There is the Internet (thank you Wikipedia!) and as an academic you should be able to pick out the good bits and ignore the rubbish. Still I wouldn't recommend this in general: too stressful and too much work.

hkukbilingualidiot said...

Well, you could always try the classical method or take the philosophical approach, such as the using the phrase 'so what is your take on so and so?' and 'could you expand that further?'. It worked a few hundred years ago and it may well just work out.

Though joking aside, I would rather have a specialist teach me things related to their interest areas than others who have scarce recollection of what the things are. I've had enough of semi-knowledgeable teachers before university to know that resourceful teachers are the best teachers.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

In the case of medical physiology, we are all in Camp 1 by necessity. This is because medical physiology comprises such a broad and diverse set of topics--kidneys, livers, lungs, hearts, brains, skin, etc--that unless your physiology faculty has a fuckjillion members, plenty of the topics are going to have to be taught by faculty who do not have primary expertise in those topics. In at least one way, I am convinced this leads to *better* teaching, as a "world's expert" in a topic frequently has a very poor conception of what is difficult about the topic for neophytes to learn and what is easy, and also a very poor conception of which aspects of the topic are important for someone to learn whose goal is not to, herself, become a "world's expert" and which are dispensible.

Being in Camp 1 has never been a problem--assayed by (1) our students passing the pre-clinical boards and (2) getting feedback from our clinical colleagues on our students' preparation for the clinics--and our first-year medical physiology curriculum is considered to be among the best in the entire motherfucking nation.

Anonymous said...

"Just a thought exercise"?
As I read the post, I was sure it would end with a poll, but it ended with this lame thought exercise, alas. Anyway, if you do want a vote, I'm firmly in camp 2.


qaz said...

I think the larger issue is the amount of work put into the class to make the class appropriate for the level of the students. I suspect that non-expert profs are more likely to put in the extra work to make it right than expert profs who "know the subject inside and out". Controlling for both teaching ability and effort, camp 2 might be right, but the difference is probably minimal. But doing stuff like moving beyond textbooks to discussion groups, discovery-based learning, and other stuff like that (which takes time and effort, but does not depend on primary-subject expertise) is far more important than actual in-subject expertise.

madscientist said...

I am mostly in Camp 1. I am in a department in which we have three distinctly different concentrations, and was asked to teach a 100 level class on a subject that I had NEVER studied before. I think that I did a good job at it, but it took a lot of preparation. A LOT. I know that I would not really enjoy teaching yet another class that I know nothing about, but I am pretty sure I could do it. With caveats.

I am not sure that I would want to do this at the 400 level. The undergrads probably would know more than I would about the subject. 300 level is a little dicey. I think 200 and 100 level is just right for people who don't know anything about a subject.

My main argument for this is that experts may know too much about a field and they may make assumptions about what the class knows. A novice would make no assumptions and would, most likely, teach the class thoroughly.

(If my department chair is reading this - I am firmly in Camp 2!!!)

Chris said...

While a competent scientist can probably teach any of the core courses and cover the concepts adequately, it is the deep knowledge of professors that influenced me as a student. Specialists know the stories behind the concepts, and the current state of research, and can inspire students to want to know more about a particular topic.

John Vidale said...

I'm in Camp 2. I suppose Camp 1 works if the prof is way sharper than the students, but that's not the case for the best of the students, who often set the tone in class discussions. When I was a student and even today profs trying to act learned on subjects in which they know little more than me irritate me greatly.

Which leads to the question of what is the future of teaching. I think we're already past the point at which self-motivated students are better off researching from good sources on the web than sitting in large lecture classes, no matter how indispensable such classes are to university economics.

Curt F. said...

I would be in Camp 1 because I am greedy about learning things. I'm always looking for excuses that makes reading literature in a new area part of "my job".

Siz said...

I, as an organic chemist, think it would be a dis-service to the students for me to teach physical chemistry and I would never expect the physical chemists to teach organic chemistry. Especially, for either, at the grad level.

That being said I would be 100% fine teaching general chemistry. As would a physical chemist, an inorganic chemist or an analytical chemist.

It depends on the field and the topic, I suppose but I am 90% in Camp 2.

We, as scientists, are all adapt at learning new things, and teaching ourselves new things. However, we owe it to the students to give them the best education we can and that can truly only be done by having someone teach a higher level course who specializes in that field.

Doctor Pion said...

I'm generally in Camp 1, for some of the reasons Comrade PP gave, but it does depend a bit on the sub field and what is meant by Core. I've seen many examples where the best teacher is someone outside their area of expertise while the expert does an awful job.

But there are science areas where the core content has changed significantly in the past 20 years, and there you want someone who is up to date in that area (or, at least, in their undergrad education). There are others where your area of practice might not keep your technical skills at the right level.

Consider the "joke" that physics departments always keep a theorist around just to teach a highly mathematical class like electricity and magnetism. Or imagine a theoretical physicist teaching a junior-level lab about digital electronics. The experiment wouldn't even work if Pauli was there.

Ms.PhD said...

Here's a hint: HIRE ME!

Seriously though, I don't think it has anything to do with how "smart" you are, or what you work on. I think it has everything to do with your commitment to teaching and knowledge of pedagogy. And, yes, it probably matters how much time you want to spend filling in the gaps in your memory. But again, that doesn't necessarily correlate with expertise or intelligence.

Case in point: I ran into a former colleague the other day who teaches one or two lectures a year. He is a terrible lecturer, who is under the impression that because most people tell him he is brilliant (I don't!), the students are lucky to bask in his presence.

This attitude is not surprising or unusual, since he is just mimicking what the faculty at our graduate school believed about the value of their own teaching. We should be so lucky as to be in the room with their amazing expertise! Preparing a lecture is for wussies!

Fortunately, I had great teachers in college, so I can say with some evidence to support it that I'd much rather have someone who is a)creative about the topic, b)highlights the main concepts, and c)knows the historical context of the field, both in terms of who did the work and what else was going on in science and the world at the time.

You know, rather than someone who spouts details at me while missing the big picture.

(But then again, I never did think that guy was brilliant.)

Lori said...

I am firmly in Camp 1 for intro courses. Every scientist should be able to provide a foundation for the core areas of their science. It might not be my first choice to teach outside of my speciality, but I certainly have done it. And just because someone is teaching in their speciality doesn't mean that they are doing a good job. The cell biologist in my old department taught intro cell and molecular biology straight out of the textbook. No extras, no embellishments...

I had another colleague who claimed that she couldn't teach evolution at the freshman/sophomore level because she'd never had a class in it. All I could think was how sad it was that (a) she didn't think she could teach evolution -- an underlying principle of all of biology and (b) that a person with a PhD relied on her undergraduate and graduate curriculum to drive her professional life more than 25 years later.

Physics Grad Student said...

"I ask: Would the classes be any good?"

In my experience, the quality of the course has more to do with the ability of the instructor teaching the subject rather than the depth of knowledge the instructor has. Obviously, the instructor has to have some background in the subject. In physics at least, I would think most professors that are good instructors would have no problem teaching the standard undergrad curriculum courses, (mechanics, e&m, stat mech, and quantum mechanics) better than poor instructors who may have a better knowledge of the subject. Almost all researchers in physics have to have a good grasp of these subjects. Obviously more advanced and specialized courses, like say Atomic & Molecular Physics, that are designed to introduce students to current research topics would require an instructor with the necessary research background, but I don't think courses like these are required at most schools at the undergrad level. In this sense, I believe whether or not the course is good would have more to do with the instructor's teaching ability, rather than their research background.

Kevin said...

I have taught classes I knew a lot about, and ones that I initially knew little about. I think that the teacher's passion for the material matters more than their prior knowledge of it, but most often the subjects that they are sufficiently passionate about are ones that they have already learned a fair amount about.

Although there is plenty of information available to the "self-motivated" student, I don't think that universities are in danger of disappearing. Libraries have always provided plenty of information, but figuring out paths through the knowledge has required teachers. The internet has increased both the information available and the distracting noise, so teachers are more important than ever.

siz said...

If you want a real answer to your question "would the courses be any good" just look at the knowledge of the students coming out of community colleges, where tenure track positions have been replaced by lecturer positions and they pay the lecturers by the credit hour (very poorly, I might add) so instructors often teach core courses in biology, chemistry and physics, even though they might not even have a PhD in biology.

FSP, I'd really like to hear your thoughts on the concept of tenure track and how more and more universities have less and less of their 'teachers' on tenure tracks.

Anonymous said...

Here's another angle: rather than focus on the points of Camp 1 or Camp 2 (or Camp N, etc.), what about ascertaining who is asked to teach (more) courses "out of his/her area"? Are there larger patterns here? Junior faculty? Female faculty?

Based on my experience, junior women faculty get asked to teach a wider array of classes, often outside of her area(s) of specialty.

If EVERYONE is asked to stretch roughly equally (or if someone(s) really wants to teach those classes), that's one thing. If certain groups teach more courses outside of their area and aren't really in a position to challenge this allocation of labor, then I have a real problem.

PUI prof said...

I am in Camp 1 by definition, teaching at a a SLAC/PUI. I completely agree with CPP especially for 100-200 level courses, as madsci notes.

As far as specialists knowing the stories and the most recent developments in the fields: there are plenty of podcasts and general science magazines (N/S/C) which we all read anyway, right? These should have relatively recent developments of significance in the field. It may not be necessary to read the primary literature of the entire sub-subfield for the last 5 years to get an idea of the most recent developments.

Moreover, the &^*$#%* textbook publishers are coming out with new editions almost every year, simply to screw the students out of book buybacks and used books.

I agree with Curt F. I love learning new things and teaching courses that are slightly out of my field of expertise because I love to learn. Of course I adore teaching them IN my field of expertise, well, because I'm in love with the subject matter.

Siz has a good point, but I think that her example is beyond what we are talking about- when a physicist teaches a lower level physics course than when a nurse teaches physics (nurses could teach A and P, ya see).

So count me soundly in Camp 1. However, I must say I was recently on a hiring committee and we chose depth of expertise over general teaching ability all other things being equivalent.

Anonymous said...

I am in Camp 1 as far as undergraduate core classes are concerned. The key word is core. These are usually classes that are by definition broad and general, and NOT highly specialized. Graduate classes, being more advanced, would benefit from specialist teachers with deep knowledge of that one subject. But since undergrad core classes are by definition not advanced nor specialized, I think any professor worth their job in their department should be competent enough to teach such undergraduate core classes.

For example, any physics or engineering professor worth their salt (regardless of specialty) should be able to teach undergraduate core math courses (covering the usual calculus, differential equations, linear algebra etc )

quasarpulse said...

@Anonymous 11:28:
Eep! No. No, they can't. Have you seen science professors do calculus? It's a bunch of handwaving punctuated by painfully mathematically-incorrect statements directly equating physical quantities with mathematical operations. Attempts at derivations fall apart on a regular basis, imploding into the giant holes left between steps. What you suggest would be a disaster of unimaginable magnitude.

(and yes, I'm fully aware that these scientists can do the math. But they can't communicate it with anyone who can't also do it. Say what you will about mathematicians, but they definitely know how to communicate mathematically.)

Kevin said...

"Say what you will about mathematicians, but they definitely know how to communicate mathematically.)"

Umm, quasarpulse, have you had a class from a mathematician lately?
Some mathematicians know how to communicate, but not all mathematicians. Indeed it can be a tossup who is worse at teaching calculus, physicists or mathematicians.

Disclaimer: I had some excellent math teachers in high school and college, and also some truly horrible ones. Their standing as mathematicians was not highly correlated with their teaching ability (positively or negatively). I was fortunate in that I always had instructors who knew the material well, so I did not have to deal with the double whammy of an incompetent teacher who didn't even know the material.

quasarpulse said...

I've had several such classes :) Note that I made no claims whatsoever about mathematicians' ability to communicate in English (though I'd actually venture to say that they're often better at this than physicists are). But mathematicians can usually write math.

Hope said...

I am firmly in Camp 2 – but perhaps I was spoiled by my undergrad education. I found it incredibly inspiring to have my physics core courses taught by the big-wigs in the field. With one exception, they were *excellent.* And no, I don’t think that someone outside their specialty could have done a similar job – at least not without a huge investment of time on their part.

Anonymous said...

I'm the Anonymous@11:28. in my undergrad institution, there were math courses for math majors, versus for physics majors, versus for engineering majors. My degree was in electrical engineering but I didn't select that major until my junior year. As a result, I spent the first two years taking general math courses from the math department aimed at math majors. Then when I declared an engineering major I had to retake the lower level math courses (because a glitch in the system wouldn't recognize the math-major courses as pre-reqs for the upper level engineering classes. I believe to this day it was part of a scheme to get more money from students' tuition). This time around the math courses (which covered basically the same topics) were taught in the engineering departments and usually had titles like "blah blah blah (math subtopic) for engineers".

I can say that the latter courses were a lot more enjoyable to me than the courses I took in the math department. Maybe it's because i'm by nature an engineer not a mathematician so I appreciated the greater emphasis on application and methods and lesser emphasis on derivation and elegant proofs.

Now as an electrical engineering professor, I have to teach such "math for engineering majors" classes.... could I teach a lower-level math course for math majors? I believe I could do it competently, though probably not upper level math courses.

Anonymous said...

My own personal experience as an undergrad: the very best lecturer was not qualified in any of the fields taught. The very worst was the most highly qualified in the field taught.

Those are extremes, and may be the exceptions to any 'rule'. I have had some very good lecturers who were specialists in their field as well, and one or two who were clearly out of their depth trying to take a class they they had no depth of knowledge in.

What came across on every occasion, however, was the lecturer's ability to communicate concepts to those who had not met them before, their own passion for learning, personal experiences conveyed by the lecturer that were relevant to the topic and illustrated their own engagement with the subject, and their willingness to allow (indeed to encourage) the students to participate in their own learning process rather than to accept without question the wisdom of the expert. The best, most inspiring lecturers were not afraid to admit that their own knowledge had limitations, that they were also still learning, and that they were delighted to have the students coming along with them on the journey.

I do not think that this latter approach would work at every level. Prior to postgraduate study, teachers who don't know their topic are not likely to be respected by their students. For teaching a specialised subject rather than a core subject, a lecturer who does not know the topic is not in a position to teach it. For fundamental concepts that apply across the whole broad sweep of the course, however, my observation of the the ability of a lecturer to teach any core subject is more an indication of their teaching ability, flexibility and broad interest in the general subject area than it is of their absolute depth of knowledge of that core subject.