What happens when you don’t know anything about the subject you’re teaching?

Biologie & Anatomie & Mensch, via Wikimedia commons

Biologie & Anatomie & Mensch, via Wikimedia commons

Like many grad students in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, I my made a living through grad school as a TA.

One semester, there were open positions in the Human Anatomy cadaver lab. I was foolish enough to allow myself to be assigned to this course. What were my qualifications for teaching an upper-division human anatomy laboratory? I took comparative vertebrate anatomy in college four years earlier. We dissected cats. I barely got a C.

You can imagine what a cadaver lab might be like. The point of the lab was to memorize lots of parts, as well as the parts to which those parts were connected. More happened in lecture, I guess, but in lab nearly the entire grade for students was generated from practical quizzes and exams. These assessments consisted of a series of labeled pins in cadavers.

My job was to work with the students so that they knew all the parts for quizzes and exams. (You might think that memorizing the names of parts is dumb, when you could just look them up in a book. But if you’re getting trained for a career in the health sciences, knowing exactly the names of all these parts and what they are connected to is actually a fundamental part of the job, and not too different from knowing vocabulary as a part of a foreign language.)

The hard part about teaching this class is: once you look inside a human being, we’ve got a helluva lotta parts, all of which have names. I was studying the biogeography of ants. Some of the other grad student TAs spent a huge amount of time prepping, to learn the content that we were teaching each week. Either I didn’t have the time, or didn’t choose to make the time. I also discovered that the odors of the preservatives gave me headaches, even when everything was ventilated properly. Regardless of the excuse that I can invent a posteriori, the bottom line is that I knew far less course material than was expected of the students.

Boy howdy, did I blow it that semester! At the end, my evaluation scores were in the basement. Most of the students thought I sucked. The reason that they thought I sucked is because I sucked. What would you think if you asked your instructor a basic question, like “Is this the Palmaris Longus or the Flexor Carpi Ulnaris?” and your instructor says:

I don’t know? Maybe you should look it up? Let’s figure out what page it is in the book?

The whole point of the lab was for students to learn where all the parts were and what they were called. And I didn’t know how to find the parts and didn’t know the names. I lacked confidence, and my students were far more interested in the subject. It was clear to the students that I didn’t invest the time in doing what was necessary to teach well. They could tell, correctly, that I had higher priorities.

Even though students were in separate lab sections, a big chunk of the grade was based on a single comprehensive practical exam that was administered to all lab sections by the lecture instructor. Even though I taught them all semester – or didn’t teach them at all – their total performance was measured against all other students, including those who were lucky enough to be in other lab sections taught by anatomy groupies. Even I at the time realized that my students drew the short straw.

One of my sections did okay, and was just above the average lab section. The other section – the first of the two – had the best score among all of the lab sections! My students, with the poor excuse of an ignoramus instructor, kicked the butts of all other sections. These are the very same students that gave me the most pathetic evaluation scores of all time. They aced the frickin’ final exam.

What the hell happened?

I inadvertently was using a so-called “best practice” called inquiry-based instruction. That semester, I taught the students nothing, and that’s why they learned.

Now, I know even less human anatomy than I did back then. (I remember the Palmaris Longus, though, because mine is missing.) I bet my students would learn even more now than mine did then, and I also bet that I’d get pretty good evals, to boot. Why is that?

I’d teach the same way I taught back then, but this time around, I’d do it with confidence. If a student asked me to tell the difference between the location of muscle A and muscle B, I’d say:

I don’t know. You should look it up. Find it in the book and let me know when you’ve figured it out.

The only difference between the hypothetical now, and the actual then, is confidence. Of course, there’s no way in heck that I’ll ever be assigned to teach human anatomy again, because the instructors really should have far greater mastery than the students. In this particular lab, I don’t think mastery by the instructor really mattered, as the instructor only needed to tell the students what they needed to know, and the memorization required very little guidance. (For Bloom’s taxonomy people this was all straight-up basic “knowledge.”)

I do not recommend having an ignorant professor teach a course. If a class requires anything more than memorizing a bunch of stuff, then, obviously, the instructor needs to know a lot more than the students. Aside from a laboratory in anatomy, few if any other labs require (or should require) only straight-up memorization of knowledge. Creating the most effective paths for discovery requires an intimate knowledge of the material, especially when working with underprepared students.

For contrasting example, when I’ve taught about the diversity, morphology and evolutionary history of animals, I tell my students the same amount of detail that I told my anatomy students back then: nothing. I provide a framework for learning, and it’s their job to sort it out. If a students asks about the differences between an annelid and a nemadote, I refrain from busting into hours of lecture. But I don’t just lead them to specimens and a book. I need to provide additional lines of inquiry that put their question into context. It’s not just memorizing a muscle. In this case, it’s about learning bigger concepts about evolutionary history and how we study attempt to reconstruct the evolutionary trees of life. I ask them to make specific comparisons and I ask leading questions to make sure that they’re considering certain concepts as they conduct their inquiry. That takes expertise and content knowledge on my part.

To answer the non-rhetorical question that is the title of this post, then I guess the answer is: It will be a disaster.

But if you act with confidence and don’t misrepresent your mastery, then it might be possible to get by with not knowing so much and still have your students learn. Then again, if you’re teaching anything other than an anatomy lab that involves only strict memorization, I’d guess that both you and your students are probably up a creek if you don’t know your stuff.

The semester after was the TA for human anatomy, I taught Insect Biology lab. That was better for everybody.

On not liking teaching


Some hubbub has emerged over an opinion piece published over in the Chronicle of Higher Education a few days ago, entitled: “I don’t like teaching. There, I said it.”

You should go over, give it a read, and please let me know what you thought, before I let you know about what I think about it.

I’m not writing this response so that I can contribute my own $0.02. I’ve written this response because I hope to move the conversation beyond the myopia of the entire discussion involving the article, which only tracks the myopia of the piece’s author.

On one side, you have a predictable argument: “If she doesn’t like teaching maybe she should have a different profession.” On the other side, you have a predictable response, “If she’s teaching well, she doesn’t have to like it because that’s her own business.” Another predictable counter to the initial criticism is that teaching is only one part of the job of a professor.

The preceding statements are all correct, and they are not contradictory. And they’re all mostly pointless. Instead, we might want to look at the nature of our profession, and why this particular pseudonymous author doesn’t like teaching even though she’s chosen this line of work.

For starters, I don’t know many people that received their Ph.D. because they were interested in teaching and who were primarily interested in teaching at the university level. If this is one’s primary motivation in completing a dissertation, what are the odds that the dissertation will be completed, and what are the odds that the person will do a good job?

I have to admit that, if I were in a position in which I had doctoral students, I would be reluctant to take such a student into my lab because that student would lack the ganas that is required for success in grad school. You just don’t do research on something for five+ years unless you’re passionately into it, and that isn’t going to come from a desire to teach at the university level. If students go into grad school with love of teaching above all else, will these students ever publish their theses?

Being a professor may or may not someone’s greatest passion and a personal calling as a career. Regardless, being a professor is a job. You do something and you bring in a paycheck. In my view, it’s a friggin’ awesome job. No matter how you dress it up, though, it’s a job, even if you love it.

Most people don’t like their jobs. You wouldn’t judge your supermarket cashier, your plumber or your associate director of human resources based on whether or not they like their jobs. You care if your plumber replaces your fixture promptly, professionally, and at a good value. Your interactions would be more pleasant if he enjoyed his job, but that’s not your concern. Your plumber might not like being a plumber. For a bunch of people, this is what life is like, to a good extent, and our default mode is to not enjoy our moment-to-moment existence. (To be clear, the last plumber I interacted with was talented, friendly, pleasant and seemed to be enjoying life.)

Maybe my plumber was doing the same thing that the pseudonymous author of the Chronicle piece does. Maybe he doesn’t like plumbing deep down but he has to convince his clients that he likes it because that’s the only way he gets referrals and keeps his job. Heck, I’d be glad to offer a referral, and if he seemed like a gloomy gus then that might not be the case. I’m not sure. Smiles do matter. I would wager a small bet that my plumber, deep down, is happier than the author of the Chronicle. I doubt he’d write an article for a plumbing trade journal about not liking plumbing.

Would my plumber be a better plumber if he enjoyed his job? Over the years, I would think so. It’s hard to have pride in one’s job over the years if one doesn’t enjoy it. Why stay current with the latest plumbing technology? Why focus on quality control, and why not get a job done in the minimum amount of time and effort required as long as you can get away with it with the client? Yes, I do want a plumber that enjoys his job. Other than my empathetic concern for all other people, I don’t care if my plumber enjoys his job. However, I’m willing to bet that the happy plumber will be the more effective plumber in the long run.

The author of the Chronicle piece writes that if one likes teaching for the wrong reason (“because one loves the spotlight”), then this person might be a worse teacher than a person who doesn’t care about teaching at all. That’s a Ray-Bolger-scale strawman argument that I’ll choose to ignore.

The author implies that she’s a perfectly fine teacher, just as she is perfectly fine at cutting the grass, changing diapers and doing the laundry: “You don’t have to enjoy something to do it, and you don’t have to enjoy something to be good at it.”

In short, the author dismisses the notion that happiness leads to doing a good job. If you know how to go through the steps to do laundry or make risotto, then you don’t have to enjoy it to do it well, right? Isn’t teaching the same way, if you do what it takes to be effective in the classroom you don’t have to enjoy it to do it well, do you?

Is teaching so special? Do you have to enjoy teaching to do it well even though that’s not true of many other tasks?

I think that might be the case. A good performer that could fake enjoyment might be just as effective, perhaps. What evidence do I have? Oh, I don’t have any. I’m not even particularly concerned about being right, that’s just a hunch.

This question itself – is teaching different because excellence requires a passion – is the center of the banal discussion of this article that I’d like us all to get past.

This whole discussion has been based on a linear thinking about teaching. You enjoy teaching or you don’t, and as a result you are good at it, or you’re not, or there’s no relationship between enjoyment and effectiveness.

Instead of asking whether enjoyment of teaching is required to be an effective teacher, how about we ask:

Does effective teaching lead one to be happy?

It seems this is not true for the author of the article. She argues that when she’s an effective teacher she doesn’t enjoy it. This means that effective teaching doesn’t make her happy.

Now, that’s her real problem.

And, I suspect, it’s her students’ problem too.

Ignoring the parts of teaching that none of us like (grading, grade grubbers), do I like doing most of the other stuff? Not really. Do I derive deep enjoyment from crafting a particularly good lesson? No. Do I really like developing a new laboratory exercise that involves inquiry for students to learn a central important concept in my discipline? Not much.

I don’t need to hide behind a goddamn pseudonym to say that. You know why I don’t need to hide? Because I deeply enjoy teaching. I love it.

How can I love teaching if I don’t enjoy doing all of the parts of it?

I don’t love the process; I love the outcome.

My brain is adequately wired, and has enough experience, that I can be driven by delayed gratification. Among the list of great feelings are having taught a great class and a having taught a great course. Even better is when you’ve spent the whole semester teaching an academic scientific concept, and at the end, students tell you that you’ve made a difference in their lives.

You’re damn right that’s enjoyable.

If that’s not enjoyable, then I don’t know what the hell is wrong with you. If students aren’t telling you that you’ve made a difference, then you might want to reconsider what constitutes effective teaching.

So how are mowing your lawn, making risotto and picking up trash different from teaching? You do the first three for yourself. When you teach, you are not doing it for yourself. You’re doing it for others. That’s the difference.

Let’s look at the author’s risotto example more carefully. According to her, if you know how to follow the steps, then you can make a great risotto. (By the way, if you are making risotto with all of that stirring instead of using a pressure cooker, you’re nuts. Seven minutes under high pressure and the risotto is perfect without any stirring. Get yourself a pressure cooker pronto if you don’t have one, and let me know if you need any tips.)

So, she claims that that she can make a good risotto without enjoying the process if she follows the steps. That’s true, but who is eating this risotto? It’s my bet that she is. If she’s making this risotto and not tasting it, then she’s probably not going to be focusing on doing a great job.

If she’s making risotto for others, and she’s not eating it herself, would she still make good risotto? You bet she would, if she actually cared about the people for whom she was cooking. If it was her spouse and kids, she’d make it super-tasty, take the time to mince the garlic just right, and all that. If it was just some schmo who she was feeding in a soup kitchen, maybe she wouldn’t make as good of a risotto. She might be able to, but does she go through the effort? I doubt it.

I love making a great risotto, though I don’t do it often. I’ll spend much more time in the kitchen making the risotto just right because that makes it so much more enjoyable. Do I inherently enjoy peeling and mincing garlic? No? Do I like peeling, seeding, and cubing a butternut squash? Not particularly. Do I like making a special trip to the store that has the particularly good parmesean? Of course not. But I do it, because I really like the risotto. I don’t find the cooking process objectionable, and I love being able to make a wonderful meal.

If you were to ask anybody who knows me very well, they’d say that I enjoy cooking.

So, now let’s look at the teaching of our pseudonymous non-liker of teaching, which can only be evaluated based on what she says and chooses to not say. She implies that she’s a perfectly fine teacher even though she doesn’t enjoy teaching. She’s only teaching because it’s her job.

Even though she’s teaching just fine, she still doesn’t enjoy it. Effective teaching, even when done efficiently, takes plenty of time.  If she’s not enjoying the product, then how does she go through the motions to teach so well?  Let’s take a look at what she thinks goes into effective teaching:

Effective teaching is, after all, a set of behaviors. What students need from us are clear presentations, careful selections of course material, engaging discussions—in short, the right behaviors.

If she thinks that this list above comprises the top requirements for highly effective teaching, then no wonder she doesn’t enjoy teaching.

I’m willing to wager that if she were to cook some risotto for me, I would find it passable but not delicious.

What do I think is highly effective teaching? Here’s a starting point.

If you’re going to enjoy teaching, then what brings you the most enjoyment is successful teaching. If you think that a rote set of behaviors, disconnected to your own emotions, makes you an effective teacher over the course of your career, then you’ve squandered your time failing to change the lives of your students.