Category Archives: teaching

Why I’m teaching online again

Our semester starts this week, and I’m once again (co)teaching an online course. This is very much swimming against the current, at least at my university, so why am I doing it? I don’t pretend that my answers here are jaw-droppingly original, but I think they’re important to what university education ought to look like, not just now but years or decades on. So I’ll explain.

First: my university, like many, is busily pushing hard to re-establish “normal” – or at least, what our senior administrators imagine that students (and prospective students) think is “normal”. Continue reading

Maybe it’s time to stop teaching “the scientific method” in 1st year biology

Recently, my department held a search for a new instructor to oversee our 1st year labs. An important part of our search process is a “teaching talk”, in which we pretend (poorly) to be students, and the candidates give a lecture they might deliver in one of their assigned courses. We set the topic (so it’s the same for all candidates), and this time, we asked them to deliver a lecture for 1st-year biology on “the scientific method”.

We were lucky to interview three wonderful candidates (I’d have been happy with any of them), and I think they did the best job possible with that lecture topic. But the experience crystallized something that’s been bothering me for many years. I’m becoming convinced that even the best job possible of teaching “the scientific method” to first year biology students simply isn’t worth doing. Or, to be a bit more forceful: it probably does more harm than good. I know, that’s nothing short of heresy. Continue reading

Why do pre-meds want to do research in my ecology lab? And should I let them?

When I got my (first) academic job and my lab opened for business, I got a surprise. I expected undergraduate students to ask me about doing research in my lab. After all, as an undergraduate myself I’d learned an enormous amount by doing research with mentors – some of whom I still talk science with today. I expected to have a lot of fun sharing my love of evolutionary-ecology research with students who were as excited about it as I was. But, as I said, I got a surprise.

It turns out that, over the years, many of the undergraduate students who’ve inquired about doing research with me aren’t actually as excited about evolutionary ecology as I am. That was the surprise: pre-meds wanting to do research in my ecology lab.*

Why would a pre-med student want to do research in my lab? Continue reading

How many university instructors phoned it in during the pandemic?

Another one of those tiresome articles made the rounds the other day, asserting that online instruction during the pandemic was an outrageous failure and that students hated every moment of it. No, I’m not going to link to it; it doesn’t deserve your time (but you can find it, and a dozen of its shallow kin, easily enough if you must).  These articles are worthless for at least three reasons. First, they rely on self-reported student satisfaction, and surely by now we all understand that this correlates loosely at best with instructional quality. Second, it’s not a mystery that these articles are a product of motivated reasoning: people want to be outraged, so media produce stories that feed that outrage – whether they represent the situation fairly or not. And third, what exactly would objectors to online instruction like us to have done? If we could simply wish a pandemic away, we’d already all have ponies. Flying ponies. I want my pony.

But there’s a legitimate question lurking in these otherwise facile articles. Continue reading

Is science communication unteachable?

Have you ever read a scientific paper that simultaneously left you in deep admiration, but also crushed?  I have – just now. It’s Rubega et al. 2021, “Assessment by audiences shows little effect of science communication training”. In a nutshell, several of the authors teach what sounds like an absolutely terrific graduate course in science communication; they used elegantly designed methods to test whether taking the course helps students do better at science communication; and much to their (and my) disappointment, they found that the answer was a pretty convincing “no”.  To which I can really only say “argh”. Continue reading

How scandalized should folks be if I re-use my prerecorded lectures?

Scandals are on the horizon. Many of us poured effort into recorded lectures during the year of the pandemic, and as those courses reappear in our teaching rotations, we’ll be tempted to just upload the same lectures over again. Horrifying, right?  Well, maybe not. I’m not (yet) sure.

I’ll face this dilemma soon for my Fall 2021 courses. Continue reading

Online teaching and self-fulfilling prophecy

My university is in the throes of figuring out what Fall 2021 looks like for teaching – while working under the enormous handicap of not knowing what Fall 2021 will look like for anything else: student demand, vaccination uptake, variant persistence, not-yet-relaxed Public Health limits on classroom capacities, you name it. This has of course brought with it another round of existential-angst-ridden debate over whether another semester of partly-to-mostly-online teaching will be a way out of our conundrum or the end of higher education as we know it.

It’s easy to be tempted into “end of higher education as we know it”. Continue reading

What if the way Covid-19 forces us to teach is actually better?

Well, I survived – barely – my first full semester of teaching online;* and I’ve jumped into my second. Will it be the last? My colleagues certainly hope so, with “I can’t wait to get back in the classroom” beginning to be the most distinctive vocalization of Homo professorius. And you don’t have to look far to find media articles condemning online teaching: it’s lazy, it’s short-changing students, it’s unfair, it reduces learning to watching YouTube.

What if all that is wrong? Continue reading

The teaching book I’ve always needed

I taught my first undergraduate course in 1992 (I think it was), as a final-year PhD student. I had no idea what I was doing.

28 years later, some days I feel like not much has changed.*

I’m like most university instructors, I think, in three important ways.  First, I’ve never had any formal instruction in how to teach.** Second, while I know there’s an enormous literature on the scholarship of teaching, I’ve read very little of it, and when I try, I usually find it impenetrable. Third, I care about my teaching and want to do it better. (Yes, I’m aware of the apparent tension between the third statement and the first two – but that will have to be a blog post of its own.)

What I needed desperately, 28 years ago, and still need now, is a user-friendly book that could orient me to best practices in teaching. Continue reading

The Easter eggs in my entomology course

No, not that kind of Easter egg.

Our fall semester is in the home stretch now, much to my relief – and I’m sure that of my students, too.  My teaching this fall was entirely online. While those with strong but uninformed opinions were furiously tweeting about slipper-wearing profs dialing it in from their easy chairs, I was working hard – unsustainably hard – to produce online courses that work.

Was I successful? I don’t know. But I used every technique I could think of to make my online entomology course navigable, transparent, and engaging. Continue reading