Category Archives: teaching

I’m about to teach a writing course, and I’m very scared

I start teaching a new course in just a few weeks.  For the first time, I’m teaching a whole course in scientific writing.  I’m supposed to know something about that – after all, I wrote The Scientist’s Guide to Writing – but nevertheless, I’m scared.

I’ve resisted teaching scientific writing for many years, despite agreeing with my colleagues who argue that it’s one of the most valuable courses a student (undergraduate or graduate) can take.  I’ve resisted in part because teaching a good scientific writing course is a lot of work; but mostly I’ve resisted because I’m not sure that I know how to teach a good scientific writing course.  I’ve never taken one, and so have no model to emulate or to avoid.  On top of that, I don’t actually think of myself as a very good writer.  I’m slow, and although I’ve worked hard to become an adequate writer, my papers are never going to be celebrated as outstanding in our literature.  So how can I teach writing? Continue reading

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Things I teach that are not true

Image: Tribolium castaneum (red flour beetle), Peggy Greb USDA-ARS, released to public domain.

Teaching undergraduates is an enormous pleasure (most of the time), and getting paid to do it is a privilege.  Along with that privilege, of course, comes responsibility: I should work to teach my students things that are relevant; things that are important; and of course, things that are true.

Except that sometimes I teach my students things that are not true. Continue reading

This is what a terrible teaching statement looks like

Last month I offered some advice about how to write a terrible teaching statement – or, more usefully, how not to.  The post was inspired by many years of serving on search committees (not, I will point out again, by any particular applicant’s example).  But in researching an upcoming blog post, I stumbled across a copy of my own teaching statement, from the last time I was on the job market.  And guess what?  It was terrible in many of the very ways I mentioned. Continue reading

How to write a terrible teaching statement

Over the last 20 years I’ve served on at least a dozen faculty search committees, and that means I’ve seen approximately six wheelbarrowloads of job applications.  I’ve seen some terrific applications and some terrible ones (and I now understand that my own applications, at least early in my career, shared some features with the terrible ones).  But one standard piece of the faculty job application almost always makes me roll my eyes: the teaching statement.

Most faculty job ads request a “statement of teaching philosophy”; some search committees even pay attention to it*.  I’ve seen them anywhere from a couple of sentences to several pages long.  And actually, there’s no need for a post titled “How to write a terrible teaching statement”, because believe me, this skill is already widespread.  So instead, let me suggest an important way in which you can write one that isn’t terrible.  Continue reading

Why I assign the group work that I hated as a student

Photo: Group presentation, by LBB Jauno speciālistu sekcija via Flickr.com, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

When I was an undergraduate, I hated group work.  As a professor, I assign it. Hypocrisy? Cognitive dissonance?  Cruelty?  Well, I don’t think so.

I hated group work for two reasons.  Continue reading

Sign: "No texting while learning"

How do we make students into professional learners?

Photo: Original by Whispertome via wikimedia.org; released to public domain; clumsy modification by yours truly.

Last fall I was 1/3 of a “teaching triangle”.  This meant I teamed up with two other instructors for reciprocal classroom visits – not for assessment, but as an opportunity for observation and then discussion of different personalities and different teaching approaches working with different students in different classrooms.  I picked up some useful ideas from seeing differences among my colleagues in how they approach teaching.  But much more importantly, the experience crystallized for me something I now realize I’ve been seeing for years: the astonishing differences among students in how they approach learning. Continue reading

Teaching population dynamics with simulations in R

Graphic: Results of a discrete-time simulation with two competitors having a shared predator. Exercise for the reader: which trace is the predator?

Warning: wonkish. Of interest primarily to those who teach upper-level ecology courses.

I don’t have an important message today, or a big unresolved question to talk about. I just thought I’d share some teaching resources. If you teach ecology (past the introductory level), you may find this useful.

One of the major themes in my 3rd-year population ecology course is the diversity of population dynamics that can emerge even in fairly simple systems: extinction, stable equilibrium, damped oscillations, stable limit cycles, neutral cycles, chaos, and so on. We spend a lot of time on the kinds of ecology that tend to favour oscillations (things like time lags and enemy-victim interactions) as opposed to those that tend to favour stable equilibria (things like immediate density-dependence and, under some circumstances, interspecific competition). Continue reading