Giving What Google Cannot.
While I believe that it is every instructor’s priority to ensure that her students understand fundamental concepts in her courses, mastery of information is only a small portion of what students should carry away from a good class. I would argue that most educators, including myself, strive to go beyond rote memorization, to foster critical thinking skills and help their students to develop lifelong learning strategies. My banner strength is helping students see how the course material is relevant to their own lives and important to their individual goals. Having read Ken Bain’s book, “What the best college teachers do,” I find myself employing a number of his suggested strategies, including one of my all time favorites: “Why do I give a darn?” At any point in the class I encourage students to interrupt me with this question. If I can’t give them a solid answer, I’m doing something wrong. I recognized the importance of having students relate to the material early in my teaching career when I started teaching a college biology summer session course. This particular course included students from a variety of backgrounds and majors including, history, music, art, and women’s studies. By providing a well-developed and clearly-defined interdisciplinary curriculum, I presented the material in a way that allowed students from diverse backgrounds to better appreciate the material and apply it to their own specialties while still being rigorous for the biology majors. This approach to any subject matter facilitates a deeper appreciation of the material.
As I have continued to hone my teaching skills throughout my career I have incorporated a variety of technologies in my classroom including classroom response systems, video conferencing technologies (to discuss topics of relevance with other classrooms and professionals from across the globe), and Open Educational Resources (to give my students multiple perspectives, modes and opportunities to understand the material). Additionally, I have often encouraged my students to use their own technologies in ways that would be relevant to course material as well as their everyday lives. I had several students present course material in the form of YouTube videos of their own creation, websites, and online portfolios. My most powerful tool as an educator however, is likely my own enthusiasm. My natural curiosity and passion for the subjects that I teach have always been contagious among my students. I use humor and personal examples when appropriate to help students retain and relate to the material.
Outside of the classroom, I have always been available to my students, whether I am needed for extra help or for guidance in helping them to make good choices to reach their career goals. As a testament to this statement, it is a rare month that I don’t still have former students calling me for help with coursework, or simply to bounce ideas off of me as they pursue their own budding careers. Teaching and learning shouldn’t end when a semester does. Having a sister who works in academic advising, I can speak first hand to the importance of having assistance and input from a professional throughout a college program. I feel that it is the responsibility of faculty members to reach out to their students as mentors during what can be an overwhelming time. I work hard to make sure my students feel comfortable approaching me. Having an open and honest relationship with students is beneficial to both parties. I ask my students to rate my performance with every exam as well. This enables me to use these “teacher report cards” as a quick assessment of my own teaching goals and determine whether or not different teaching tools were helpful for my students.
I also take very seriously my responsibility to act as a liaison between my students and outside professional contacts. I encourage students to attend professional meetings/conferences and accompany them whenever possible to help facilitate their interactions with individuals outside the department and outside the university. In my own experience, these exchanges, whether formally staged at a professional conference or in a more casual setting, are essential for both students and faculty/staff to stay interconnected and obtain fresh perspectives and approaches to material. My interest in the work of an undergraduate intern at the research station at which I conducted my fieldwork led her to collaborate with me and several of my colleagues on a unique project. She has since presented her work at a professional conference and has submitted it for publication in a peer-reviewed journal. I have helped numerous undergraduates (former students and even those referred to me by former students) to find and join professional organizations and apply for funds to make their way to professional conferences.
Finally, I feel that my unquenchable excitement for learning gives me a unique perspective from the student’s point of view. I am constantly a student myself. This perspective allows me to adapt my teaching to meet the evolving needs of today’s student. Sir Ken Robinson gives an incredible TED talk addressing the question: “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” A small part of Sir Robinson’s talk is dedicated to this concept of aesthetic versus anaesthetic experiences. The aesthetic experience, he likens to an experience in the theatre; an experience in which you are fully engaged, your senses are awakened and you feel alive. Most of my early days as a student were spent in sterile, anesthetic environments. It wasn’t until a professor of biology opened my eyes to the aesthetics of biology that I began to understand and really engage in the material - the perfume of pine sap and crow dander, the warmth of blood pulled into my syringe - and the output of cold figures and statistics became real and valuable; texts began to come alive. As an instructor, I’m committed to ensuring all of my students feel alive and able to make an impact in their studies. In the rich technological environment in which we live, I value teaching my students the “hows” and “whys” of accessing information but I recognize that I am no longer the singular font of knowledge. I will submit, that when used properly, Google will always be better than I am at retrieving information. That said, my goal as an instructor is not to regurgitate information—there is little that I know that students can’t access via the web. My job, then, is to present that information in a manner such that my students can appreciate the aesthetics and excitement of learning and thinking beyond Google. I give experiences that Google can’t.
Commitments & Strategies of My Teaching
Use humor whenever possible
Entertain (if it’s boring for me it’s most certainly boring for my students)
Demonstrate, don’t tell
Assume positive intent