Thursday, October 28, 2010

Faculty Smorgasboard

At various times in my career as a professor, I have participated in graduate-level courses in which different faculty appear for a day, a week, or a couple of weeks to talk about their general or specific research field with a diverse group of grad students. In my experience, this type of course sounds great in theory, but in practice can be an unsatisfying experience for students and professors.

There are many varieties of these courses. One in which I participated had a "theme" that was general enough to encompass a large-ish number of faculty in the department, but that was specific enough to make the course coherent. This also sounded good in theory, but the professor with primary responsibility for the class didn't do much to help keep the theme threaded through the course and the professors giving presentations were variable in the degree to which they paid attention to the theme. Student evaluations expressed discontent with the incoherence of the class.

In other classes of this sort, there is no attempt at a theme and the faculty who participate can talk about whatever aspect of their research they want. The purpose is to demonstrate the many different types of research being done in the department, and to introduce students, however briefly, to more faculty than they otherwise might encounter in their graduate studies.

I think that the success or failure of these courses depends not so much on whether there is a theme or even on how interesting the various professors are, but on the ability of the primary faculty member to provide context and to guide useful discussions before or after each presentation. Someone has to be in charge of these courses, given the high throughput of faculty in and out of the classroom during the term, and that primary professor has the responsibility of making the course as a whole comprehensible, e.g. by organizing supporting activities such as background reading, writing exercises, and/or discussions.

Does anyone like/dislike (1) being one of the professors who makes a brief appearance in these courses; (2) being the professor in charge of one of these courses; or (3) taking one of these courses as a student?

My department periodically discusses courses of this type, but the discussions are always inconclusive. At the moment, I am feeling somewhat cynical about these courses, not having had very good experiences with them to date, but I could be convinced of their worth by some compelling tales of life-changing experiences taking or teaching these courses. Or, to set the bar a bit lower, I could possibly be convinced by anecdotes of those who found it a moderately useful, even if variable, experience, to see a parade of professors describing their research field/expertise in one of these courses. [If you leave a comment about a student experience, it would be helpful if you indicated whether you took the course by choice or were required to do so.]


moose said...

Student...never taken a course like this, although I have had a seminar series course. Students must have two semesters of 90% attendance at the department seminar series. At my previous school, we had a similar course with a small amount of written work-a summary of a paper by the visiting speaker, the week before the lecture (paper chosen by the speaker)-and a presentation.

I'm curious about how such a course is assessed. For anyone who's taken one of these classes, what sorts of assignments did you have? Seminar series is not a participatory class, so it's graded pass/no pass and solely based on attendance. It's definitely a good introduction to some of the breadth of Science!, but hard to follow some weeks when you don't have the background...or when they go an entire semester without a speaker in your discipline.

Anonymous said...

I TAed a course like this for first-year undergrads. The primary professor didn't do any contextualizing, but it did seem to make a big impression on the first-years, and plenty of them used the class to decide which group to do summer research with (or it helped them decide not to do research in that subfield). It was very successful. The profs liked getting a chance to recruit, and the students seemed to get a lot our of the experience.

Anonymous said...

I'm taking one of these courses as an undergrad. And I love it! Some might say it's disjointed but it doesn't bother me at all. I might be experiencing the course differently than others as I have taken a year during my degree to work full-time in research... so attending these classes is no different to me than going to weekly seminars by speakers immersed in different areas of research, all around the continent.

FSP, don't give up on these courses- they can be enjoyable and fun! And in my experience, the "primary" faculty member doesn't do much to ensure continuity between lectures etc. It's really helped that all the faculty have given presentations at a level appropriate for us the students- I think that as long as each individual lecture is understandable, transition between them should not be a huge concern.

Anonymous said...

I've taught a one hour lecture on a sampler course like this. I started the lecture saying "I've been asked to tell you everything about dolphins eating donuts in one hour. And that is about 3 years worth of material so we will have to go quickly". The poor grad students groaned and told me after that everyone teaching this class had started with the same statement. So this year I plan less topics and more depth. But it is definitely a tough course to organise effectively.

Andre Brown said...

As a grad student we had an evening pizza talk once a week with a different faculty member from the department. This was good to introduce faculty research (one of the goals you mentioned) and so it served its purpose well. Had it been a course with grades, exams, etc. I'm pretty sure it would have been a disaster.

The opposite extreme was a cell biology course that was very well organised and, at least in outline, followed the classic text. The reason it worked well was the significant input from the course director and the fact that the pool of faculty that could be drawn on in the med school and elsewhere meant that you could basically cover everything with one faculty member per week lecturing about topics close to their research interests.

Tara said...

I am no longer a student, nor did I take a course like this as a student. In industry, we have various lunch-and-learn series. I don't think that I would choose to take a course like that, however, I do think that having the availability of brown bag lunches for this purpose might be more sensible, particularly for upper year undergraduates or early graduate students.

Anonymous said...

I'm a grad student. My department has one mandatory course like this that is required to be taken during the first year of grad studies. The year I took it, it was not well managed and fairly non-cohesive but it did give a good general overview of the research diversity and the players in the department, which has been useful knowlegde in subsequent years.

I have also taken one other course of this nature (that I took by choice). However, this was focused around a very specific theme and was well managed by the primary prof. It also had more of an interactive journal club approach where guest speaker would discuss his/her paper and the class would join discussion.

Nitish said...

I was required to take such a class in the first semester of my Ph.D., and I found it useful. It was a great introduction to a large number of faculty in the department, and I enjoyed hearing about the breadth of research being conducted. I think it was particularly helpful to those students who were unsure what they would like to work on; it gave them the opportunity to hear about a few research projects in considerably more detail than they otherwise would have.

Ann said...

As a student, I took this type of course once by choice and several times by requirement.

The one I took by choice was designed to introduce undergraduates in a clinically driven program to the types of basic science research available to them should they choose to do research or be a clinical researcher. This course was fantastic because I genuinely wanted to see the diversity in faculty research interests. The course was packaged nicely as listen to the faculty over a few weeks and then choose one to work with for a short (one-semester) research project.

The other courses I have taken as requirements I was not so enthusiastic about, either because the topics were not interesting to me, or, in one case, because of a terrible organizer. This organizer's job was to bring in speakers that bridge the gap between basic research and industry, and in the end he only brought in his own friends working for local pharma companies. In the end we heard essentially the same lecture every week. The organizer also failed the students by 1) not taking student speaker suggestions, and 2) failing to guide the speakers by telling them that not everyone in the room was motivated to start their own pharma company. In the end, I respected the speakers but felt sorry for them that their words were really only interesting to a fraction of the class and they had no idea.

Anonymous said...

[postdoc here] I do like to hear what professors do, especially when their field is different enough from mine that I might not hear about their research otherwise. However, I get a lot more out of talking about research ideas. I'd rather have a professor do a 15 minute research talk then discussion-lunch. In general, being an active participant in any type of learning works a lot better. Plus, the professor meets the students in the course and there is a base conversation on which to base future discussion.

Anonymous said...

I teach in one such class and I was skeptical at first, but it seems that it worked well as it was a new course and there are twice as many students this year as last. This is not a particularly high level course and I feel like a single prof could cover all of the material if said prof was willing to step a bit outside their comfort zone, but that's not how things work in my department. In the end I found it pretty average as a teaching experience compared to others (relatively few) I've had. The prof and TA assigned to lead the class do a good job of having everyone fit their material into a single framework which probably helps a lot and they look after all assignments etc.

Anonymous said...

I am and MD/PhD student -- many of of the medical and nearly all of the graduate courses in my institution fall under that category.

For the medical school courses, different faculty would teach different units of a course -- i.e. a cardiologist would teach cardiophysiology while a neurosurgeon taught the neurology part. While some lecturers were better than others, for the most part those courses were still very coherent, owing largely to the amazing organizational skills of the course directors and the fact that, in general and by neccessity, the things taught in medical school are pretty much standardized.

The graduate courses organized as "faculty smorgasboards", on the other hand, were far less coherent and often frustrating for both students and professors. I don't know if it's because the course directors didn't try to keep them coherent or because the faculty simply ignored their requests, but I found that faculty simply lectured on whatever is was they happened to working on at the time without regard to whether it actually fit in with the course at all or whether the students had learned enough prerequisite material to understand it. In fact, the same professors would sometimes give identical lectures at 2 courses that were supposed to be on very different topics. Since my department is a small one with the same faculty teaching in many courses, this resulted in a lot of redundancy. In theory, there were supposed to be readings and post-lecture discussions to keep things on track, but in practice they were often ignored or skipped altogether.

On the plus side, I did meet my thesis advisor through one of these courses -- his lecture was very interesting and as a result I asked him if I could do a rotation in his lab, which I ultimately ended up joining. However, the purpose of the course was not to match students with advisors. (Though it might not be a bad idea to have a non-credit course or seminar series to do just that.) Rather it was to teach a particular topic, which, as a result of the incoherence of the class, it basically failed to do.

Anonymous said...

Such a course is required in my department, both for undergrads and grads (and I've taken it as a undergrad and grad).

I think it works fine, if it's taken as a series of seminars. Ones in which the professors have hopefully made some effort to present their research in a way that is comprehensible to undergrad/grad students, depending on the class. The course is graded based on some number of short essays about the seminars, and provides about 1/3 of the credits of a normal course.

I think it's a good idea, at least so long as the presenting profs make an attempt to tailor their presentation to their audience.

Anonymous said...

In my department we have a required (for PhD students) seminar course our first year. In the first semester every professor in the department talks about their research for 30 minutes. So far it has been interesting / useful since I will be able to put every name with a face and have a general idea as to their research area. We also do have one professor who 'manages' the course, and a few panels of students who come in to talk about specific topics.

Unknown said...

As a graduate student (in an ecology and evolution department), I was required to take a "faculty parade" style class my first semester. I thought this was a very positive experience, but it had a couple of specific features that made it work.

The course was limited to entering graduate students who were either in the department or coadvised by a professor in the department. So in many ways the class was more about bonding with my graduate cohort than anything else, and it served this function very well. The way the course was structured was more about the graduate students getting to know each other than the graduate students getting to know the faculty -- it met twice a week, and for the first meeting each week a faculty member presented their research, but the second meeting was entirely graduate students, with one or two people leading discussion and a senior graduate student as a TA. I think this allowed the discussion to be a lot more freewheeling and uninhibited than it might otherwise be, and made the class into a very effective introduction to the department (with the senior grad student TA playing a key role).

In addition, the course was structured so that almost every professor with a first year graduate student presented their research (with the rest of the semester filled by representatives of the diversity of research interests in the department), and generally the students led discussion about their adviser's presentation. This meant that in addition to serving as an introduction to the work of faculty in the department, the course served as an introduction to the work of fellow graduate students. To me, this was quite valuable for building friendships and scientific relationships with my colleagues in graduate school, and I think helped prevent social stratification by lab.

I will say that I would have probably appreciated the course much less had it been organized just like a normal course, with papers and exams and open enrollment, or if it had been organized more like a seminar series with a new faculty presenting every class and then leading discussion of their own work. The real value to me of the course as it was designed was as a transition and introduction to graduate school, not so much as a course by itself.

Anonymous said...

I posit that there is an undergraduate/graduate level split in the usefulness and success of these courses. I base this hypothesis on my own experience with survey style courses as a graduate student and the posted responses thus far regarding courses of this nature for undergraduates. It appears that undergraduates are content to sample. I don't mean that in a bitchy way, just that part of the undergraduate experience is gaining breadth of knowledge, so having one or two or five sessions which are less interesting than the rest of the class is not a big loss, and thematic coherence wouldn't necessarily even be noticed. In contrast, I think graduate students, who are now prepared to specialize and who would largely prefer to eschew classes altogether, would be less tolerant of a poorly organized class with inexperienced (research) faculty giving poorly thematically-oriented lectures on topics with no obvious relationship to their current research focus. I think this problem may be exacerbated by the fact that faculty, at least when I was a graduate student, tended to spend far less time and effort planning graduate courses than undergraduate. I think there was a supposition that the graduate students would be "smart enough" to understand material without much effort made into providing context. Regardless of whether this was true, it was quite annoying to experience.

Anonymous said...

Our department has two such courses.

One is our regular weekly department research series. Each Fall, we dedicate the seminar to 2 45-minute faculty talks (from our department and collaborating departments), with the explicit intent of letting people know what is going on in various labs that they might want to rotate into or collaborate with. This has been highly successful.

The other is a core course for the department on Molecular Recognition. It is taught by 4 or 5 faculty, each getting a 2-week chunk to talk about a particular type of molecular recognition (protein-protein interaction, microRNA, antibodies, ...) relevant to their research. Each faculty member assigns and grades a homework assignment. The course is fairly new, but seems to be going well---students are getting both a broad overview of a core part of molecular biology and detailed looks at how research in particular fields is done.

Ms.PhD said...

HATE courses like this. Took one my senior year of college, and our grad classes were structured these way.

For the question moose asked, we didn't have homework, but we did have a few required "lab" demonstrations we had to attend, and exams. The demonstrations were generally stupid and the time would have been better spent actually working in a lab.

The only way it might work would require too much time from the faculty. You'd have to attend each others' lectures, at least the one before yours and maybe the one after yours, and takes notes and interject (respectively).

In my experience, the quality of the talks was generally poor, not nearly as good as real seminars because the time slots were much longer and these faculty didn't seem to know how to fill that much time.

I would have much preferred them to just talk about their research. Instead our courses were a strange mix of what they thought we should know, much of which was historical but not in a useful way. It was like having the drunk uncle at dinner rambling on about his days in the military. Boring and incoherent.

FWIW, I also did NOT find my thesis advisor, not even my rotations, via these kinds of classes. We had plenty of faculty on staff and not all of them taught parts of the course. So as an "introduction to the faculty" it failed, as far as I was concerned. None of the faculty were there long enough to get to know any of us, and we didn't get to know all of them, either.

Ideally I think you want current information with a historical awareness/relevant background to how we know those things and what's still left to be done. Otherwise, quit wasting my time with classes. Let me go to seminars and work in lab. Let's have happy hours and journal clubs and other bonding exercises, if that's what we're doing. The class format is clunky and inefficient. I learn better through immersion and reading than I do from being lectured at.

Ann said...

We refer to this course as either the "dog and pony show" or the "naptime" seminar. In theory it allows the 1st year grad students to be exposed to the variety of research being done, that they may consider when choosing a research group, and gives the faculty seeking students a recruiting opportunity.

Pharm Sci Grad said...

Student here.

Most of my graduate courses (~50/50 mandatory/voluntary) have been organized this way. Most have been a rather impressive fail from my perspective. However, I think there are two breeds of this particular animal.

Our intro course, in which faculty looking for students could give a 25 minute research "infomercial" worked really well. It was balanced with other info about being a scientist and a research presentation by each student which accounted for the majority of the final grade.

The other science courses were frustrating for two major reasons: the huge differences in faculty competence in delivering content and their high variability of assessing student learning.

I've had some amazingly fantastic lecturers, where I come to each class excited to hear what comes next. Sadly, I've had more average lectures which require some effort on my part to pay attention. I've also had some rather bad lecturers. They typically just have no concept of their audience and ramble with little coherance.

As far as assessment goes, the test writing skills are as variable as the lecturing skills. Some have been as bad as wanting one entry on a table in the middle of 40 slides that has no discerable importance relative to the other information presented. THAT is the part that drove me crazy as a student. Due to the revolving door of faculty, each test was a totally new and different experience. We lost much of the advantage of the passing semester in that we STILL didn't know how to study for the tests like we would have with a single instructor.

The lecturing disconnect I can deal with - I am an intellegent person after all. The assessment part drives me up a wall to this day.

A strong, present course coordinator helps of course.

Sally said...

I was required to take one of these courses as a 1st-year grad student. The course goal was modest: introduce students to the research being done in the department. There was no real expectation of learning, so it didn't much matter that the lectures didn't follow a theme.

The quality of our Intro to Research lectures was variable, but some were quite fun. Professors would often spend the hour giving us the dirt on their subfield--who was trustworthy, who wasn't, which groups were in competition.

Anonymous said...

So I've taken two of such courses, and my general feeling is that their success depends on the goal and the quality of speakers.

The first was during undergrad, where you took it for a term during your junior year (when you're starting the work for your major), so it was good for getting to know faculty and led to one summer research position for me. It was pretty unique though, in that it was held one night a week at various professors houses, and they were expected to serve us dessert (some went above the call of duty, and threw whole dinner parties). Each week, one of us undergrads was expected to talk for about ten minutes about what they do, whether it be research or just stuff they are interested in, to give us practice on talking about science in a more informal way. The faculty were expected to talk for a minimum of 15 minutes about what their major research projects were, but after that it was pretty free ranging in conversation. I thought the course was excellent, in that it gave me idea of what was going on in the department and the field, and gave me a much better idea of what the life of professor was really like (and there were surprisingly few awkward moments). At the very end of the term, the students were expected to present to the course coordinator and the rest of the students, which was fine.

For grad school, in my field, you typically don't get admitted to work with a specific group. So again, we had a mandatory one night a week seminar, where faculty would parade through and tell us what they were working on. This was a lot more formal and structured than the undergrad class. Those who did not know what they wanted to work on found the seminar very helpful, those of us who did thought it was a bit wasteful of our time (but we were definitely in the minority). The faculty who understood that the idea was to just give us a general idea of what they working on and wanted to recruit students for themselves or others in their discipline typically were enjoyable. Some talks, where the faculty member decided to instead present an introduction to their field, were total snooze-fests (even the graduate director, who coordinated the course and also attended each week, would fall asleep during these). There was no additional work besides attendance during the whole year.

If the goal of such a course was to get the students to learn science, I can't imagine it being successful. But as a way to introduce students to faculty/research fields, they're great.

Anonymous said...

All my grad student courses were like this. Loved it - the Prof's were always lecturing in their sub-sub-field of expertise, and thus the information was always really stellar and up-to-date. (Lecture on ribosomes given by an expert on ribosomes, etc...)

Tiger Mom PhD said...

I'm a student. I've been part of a seminar/colloquium type course where faculty came in and talked - this occurred on two days each semester and was often redundant the second semester as the faculty seemed to forget that they already talked about that EXACT thing the semester before. I liked hearing about their research but there wasn't a theme. It was just here is what I am working on kind of thing. Perhaps it would have been nice to hear a "lessons learned from the field" or a "here is what I'm doing and why it is important and different."

What I didn't like was that some of the profs that don't have a lot of students working with them used it as a time to pimp themselves out and at times it was somewhat desperate. Perhaps that is one reason they don't have a ton of students.

Anonymous said...

How exactly did some faculty "pimp themselves out" when discussing their research? How did they convey an impression of desperation? I am curious. I am picturing powerpoints with lots of bling, and I want to replace this image with something else.

geologist said...

Most of our courses are more or less like this, both on undergraduate and graduate level. I think the reason why they work so well is that they have one faculty who is responsible for the course and plans the overall content. If there are lectures that are closer to the research done by someone else in the department (or outside), these will often be held by that person instead. This way we both get a fairly coherent course (since one or two persons make the overall plan and give some general instructions about what should be covered in the lectures) and the advantage of having the person who knows most about the subject as teacher.

Anonymous said...

Student, currently taking a course like this.

Overall, I'm a big fan. It's a great way to learn about the department and to learn about PIs you might want to rotate with.

Our series is very informal, and generally the profs come prepared with a lecture, but ask what we'd like to know. For instance, if no one is really interested in rotating in a professor's lab, they'll just give a talk about the material they deal with at a more basic level. The focus less on the current experiments and future directions, instead giving us the opportunity to learn about something we otherwise might not. I think that sort of flexibility is essential to making it a good course. Also, combining this with food for everyone is a good thing too.

Anonymous said...

I took a required course of this type as a graduate student. The course was supposed to be an introduction to a sub-field, but because the sub-field is so large, there were lots of important areas that were left uncovered. I appreciated learning about the areas of expertise of the faculty in my particular department, but the course would have been better if we had also learned about some major research topics that no one in that department happened to be studying.

To the person who mentioned going over to professors' houses for this type of class - did you attend a SLAC? I'm curious because I would not welcome a departmental requirement to invite students into my home and provide food for them. I'm wondering if this is a SLAC/research university difference or if such a requirement is more common than I had expected.

Anonymous said...

I'm a student who took a course like this. It was overall a good experience because:

1) It always included free dinner
2) It was only once a week for one semester and presentations were short, 20 minute things so the faculty were FORCED to keep things conceptual.
3) We got to chat with the faculty afterwards over our dinner if desired (so if you were interested in one of the faculty's research you could ask them to talk in more detail).

***It also wasn't graded though it was required.

Anonymous said...

I took a required course like this my first quarter of graduate school. It met three times a week, and every week was led by a different professor, teaching about one specific problem in their field. Assignments were given in the middle of each week.

It was a very unsatisfying experience. There was a person in charge of the course who was supposed to moderate the material and discussions, but I don't recall what exactly his input was. The professors were disinterested, which is understandable -- a week is too short for a mini-course on a concrete problem, given that most students have little to no background in the area. They just lectured and left... many did not even grade our assignments, and I don't think they held office hours or anything. The students were mostly bored and confused, and very relieved to be done with it.

Rosie Redfield said...

I had the version of this course where each prof had a week (3 1-hr classes) to talk about their research area, in my first year of grad school. They each left us with a couple of questions - each week we had to choose one question and submit a 1-2 page paper about it.

For me this was excellent. The department was very broad (Biology) and I was exposed for the first time to questions that eventually became the focus of my research career.

queenrandom said...

I have taken several of these and TA'd two. I have to say I generally don't have strong feelings about these courses one way or the other, with two exceptions. I loathe the following, both as a student and a TA: 1) when two profs, in the same course, blatantly contradict one another, making a)answering an exam question reliant on deciphering who's asking it and b)grading a question an exercise in self-torture; 2) a prof who recycled the same nonsensical lecture for two required courses.

Tiger Mom PhD said...

Anon at 12:49 - that's great! Now when I see those couple profs I'm going to picture the "flavor flav" jewelry. They were just overly excited and kept saying things like, "if you work with me..." and "I'm so awesome/my research is so great but I need students to work with me" and what not. Whereas the other faculty members just came to share what they were working on not to convince students to work with them. In my program, this (trying to convince students to work on their research) isn't really the norm. Most faculty members have plenty of students because they do a good job, are good teachers/researchers, and have interesting research. In this situation it came across as desperate.

makita said...

Currently a postdoc, as a graduate student I pushed very, very hard for a course like that, and failed. I had taken several in a previous program, and thought they worked great.

In the plant pathology department I was in, there were separate courses in bacteriology, virology, mycology, etc. I wanted to see a "current topics" class, in which each of the professors who specialize in these fields, teach 2-3 weeks in a course, covering the most recent (last year or two) advances in their subfields.

That way, students could be exposed to molecular techniques that are currently relevant to the field, without taking an entire course on it. Or a student who didn't take the full "plant virology" class to be conversant with current interests.

To this day, I regret not being able to convince the department that students are too isolated, too focused on their own narrow area of research. I think they would benefit from the excitement that professors feel for their own subjects by being exposed to the latest that's going on.

Anonymous said...

I was told to that I had to attend courses like that, with threats that I can't graduate without attending at least 80% of the seminars in the first year...however, with less that 10% of all those seminars related to my immediate field or even useful in supporting's a really unfair system!

Anonymous said...

I am quite frankly amazed at the number of people commenting here who are so narrow in their thinking that by the first year of grad school they are already unwilling to learn anything that isn't immediately applicable to their research projects.

In 10 years, they will have no skills or knowledge that is useful. Why are they planning for such short research careers?