Friday, June 16, 2006

On Why Teaching Isn't So Bad

I brazenly claimed on Post Doc's blog that she shouldn't be scared of teaching. She called me on it, even suggesting I might be wise.* Since I don't want to hijack her blog, I thought I'd explain why here.

Also, I think that her situation is applicable to others as well. Her story happens to be a well-explained one that is easier for me to respond to.

To me, the most important part about starting to teach is knowing the material. One of the trade-offs of going to a university as an undergraduate is that you become part of the learning process of graduate students; in a way, undergraduates are the subjects of the graduate students' experiments in teaching. But that's part of the undergraduate-at-university experience, and graduate students have to accept that the first few semesters they teach will not be brilliant. A hard thing to accept, of course: part of the reason we're graduate students and post-docs and researchers is because we do well, and it's hard to feel like we're not.

In fact, to me, it's not even necessary to be so comfortable with your material that you can present it without notes. If you do feel that way before your first-ever class, you are a step ahead of most first-ever professors-in-training. And (therefore) that is better; but while it's something that needs to be a goal, it's okay for it to be a goal when you start.

Post Doc has a lovely post (well, all of her posts are lovely, actually; you should go read her if you don't already) on trying to explain why 11*11 is 121, rather than 111, to a group of junior high students. She associates? (that's not quite the right word) this to peeping through a crack in the wall between her and teaching. I suggest this is not tentative peeping through a wall, testing whether she should go over it, but rather trying to climb the mountain of explanation that exists beyond that wall. It is hard to explain why 2+2 is 4, not 5, or 3, or 22. In other words, the challenge she had with the junior high students isn't one she should have been able to conquer. Teaching as a post-doc (or as a pre-doc, or as a researcher, or as a professor) to undergraduates doesn't usually involve deep, fundamental issues such as why 2+2 is 4.

Well, not in the sciences, anyway.

The reason why Post Doc sounds like she could be a good teacher is exactly what her collegue said: feeling confident, but willing to be interrupted. Good teachers are confident in the material and their knowledge of it. Good teachers are willing to be interrupted, because they know they won't lose track of where they are going, and because they know they have a source of knowledge that is likely to provide the necessary response. A willingness to be interrupted also indicates a confidence in yourself to say that you don't know when you don't; you don't have to know everything as a teacher, just all the information you think the students should leave the class with.

So, Post Doc, that's why I think you don't need to avoid teaching. You've already climbed much more of the wall than you think.

Of course, that doesn't mean you'll like teaching. But I do think that liking and being able to are two different things altogether. And you've demonstrated more than ample ability to try it out.

*I'm just teasing.


Blogger post-doc said...

Well, wise Professor Ceresina, I see your point. I'll have to think on it. But I very much appreciate your kind words (lovely posts? from me? Aw, I'm ducking my head while I blush) and the encouragement. And should I work up some courage and take a shot at teaching, I'll know where to seek advice.

So thank you, and I'm very pleased it's going well for you. Whether I participate or not, I feel teaching is the profound part of what we do here in our academic world. I have a great deal of admiration for you (and those like you) who are very conscious of how they're presenting material. Yay for you! :)

2:06 PM EDT  

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