Thursday, November 17, 2011

I need your help...

Your mission should you choose to accept it is to help me become a better writer and a better teacher. I am currently applying for an Assistant Professor position in evolutionary biology and am drafting my first "teaching philosophy." If you are so inclined and would like to read what I have come up with so far I would appreciate your comments and criticism.
Thank you for your time and help.

Teaching Philosophy

Draft as of 11/17/2011

"Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution"   ~Theodosius Dobzhansky - 1973

I am aware that access to knowledge is not always the barrier to obtaining an education. More often, the barrier is the ability to maintain enthusiasm for learning. It is my intention not only to give my students the tools to gather the information they need to excel in my class, but also the critical thinking skills to analyze that information, and a genuine interest in doing so. By the end of my course I intend students comprehend the mechanism of evolution and have a clear understanding that evolution is a unifying idea in all fields of life-science.

In addition to understanding the mechanism of evolution I think it is important that students be able to explain it to non-scientists. The lack of dialogue between scientists and layman is one of the biggest hurtles in academia, leading to skepticism toward science in general. To promote dialogue, I plan to incorporate an extensive writing assignment and small-group problem-based-learning assignments along with regular midterm exams for a well rounded student assessment.
 I appreciate that there will be students with various backgrounds in my classes. I hope to unfold the story of evolution in a way that is challenging yet entertaining and infused with enough variety so that students from all backgrounds may find something worth further investigation. I realize that evolutionary biology as a topic may be difficult to reconcile with some cultural beliefs however I will present the physical evidence in a matter-of-fact way such that class discussion remains in the realm of the observable world. This being said, I will not tolerate any form of disrespect to anyone in my classroom and will make that clear at the onset of all courses I teach.

When I think about my time as a student the best instructors I had were those who had an infectious enthusiasm for the subjects they were teaching. When a professor has this ability it is apparent by the number of students that rush the lectern after class. I plan on using all tools at my disposal to garner this reaction from my students. I will carefully use punctuated theatrics to bring life to my lectures. As a student I could always remember the content of a class better if it were wrapped in a story. Whether it was a professor’s dance interpretation of mitotic spindle attachment or the bumpy feeling of a fossilized trilobite being passed around the class while learning about the Cambrian explosion, a unique presentation was always more memorable. I plan on utilizing a wide range of sensory-stimulating techniques in my class to reach as many students as possible. 

Accepting that scientific knowledge is not stagnant, some of the most important lessons a student can walk away with are not necessarily the content of a lecture or a class, but the lessons which teach us how to use the tools that keep us learning. It is a Professor’s obligation and opportunity to give students the keys to unlock the scientific literature enabling them to expand their independent thoughts. By actively thinking about the current understanding in a given field and then identifying the new knowledge a journal article brings into the public sphere, students will be able to assess for themselves whether they think the conclusions made are valid or not. It is my goal in teaching evolutionary biology to work up to a group discussion on a current paper in a reputable peer-reviewed scientific journal. These conversations are not only lively and entertaining but also provide the keys for students to independently investigate questions they have outside the core content of my class.

Providing sufficient feedback to students will be high on my priority list. I plan on staying personally engaged with students inside as well as outside scheduled class time and office hours. Recently the use of online discussion forums, assignments, and online grades has become more and more pervasive. My experience with the blackboard online learning system, science blogs, and scientific journal clubs gives me the ability to communicate with students fast and effectively. Maintaining a presence online, both an open discussion forum and an anonymous forum, benefits the entire class as well as future classes. In an open forum students are free to identify themselves and take credit for their work in helping their classmates, while an anonymous forum provides the space and freedom for students to ask questions they may feel intimidated not to ask otherwise. In all cases I want to maintain transparency in my classroom while concurrently respecting students’ right to privacy.

At the end of my course I hope students feel eager to continue investigating topics in evolutionary biology by taking one of many available paths; whether it is picking up an issue of the latest scientific journal or joining a research lab so they might make the next discovery in the field. I hope students see how understanding evolution provides a unified logical framework to build on research interests in all biological fields.

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