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Dec 08 2011

I’m done, almost!

Oh, man. I just finished my last lecture for this semester — this was a rough term, and I feel like I just barely dragged myself over the finish line. The big strain came from the fact that I revamped everything: I completely changed the content of my neurobiology course, with a new textbook, a new emphasis, and a different direction for the labs, and some stuff worked and some stuff failed catastrophically (the last few weeks of the lab in particular were a disaster). I offer this course again in two years, and I think I can fix the bad parts by then. I also patched up a lot of material in my Fundamentals of Genetics, Evolution, and Development course; not so much changes in lecture content, but stretching to reach out and get the students interacting more. That worked entirely — I got some significant improvements in average exam scores which I will take complete credit for, although it could just be that our incoming freshman class was full of geniuses this year. I also got much more disciplined in the writing course, and imposed a whole series of step-by-step deadlines on the big term paper. It required a bit more effort during the term, but the payoff is now — I’m not getting any papers dumped cold on my desk for grading, they’ve all been fussed over already.

It’s tiring, though. Show business is hard work; getting up and doing 4 or 5 lectures a week (and about half of them new) is exhausting. It would be much easier to just write this stuff. Why didn’t anyone tell me that a career in science involved so much singing and dancing?

My neuro students are all done with their bloggery now, and here’s the final list of neurobiology weblogs I forced them to start. Some might fade away after this, others may move on to new sites, some might keep going. However it works out, this can be my little public monument to Fall 2011. Stop by and congratulate them on surviving a whole semester with Old Man Myers.

Next: I’ve got final exams to give, a nice break to catch up on deadlines, and lots of preparation for next term to do. Spring will be worse, with an all-new, starting from scratch course in cancer biology to teach.

For now, I’m going into seclusion for a bit to wrap up some extracurricular writing that must get done right now. It’s not much of a celebration yet.

(Also on Sb)

16 comments

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  1. 1
    Glen Davidson

    Wouldn’t teaching ID be a tad easier? A few faked probabilities, some gasps at beautiful organisms followed by “That can’t be an accident,” and a lot of reverent repetitions of “Praise baby Jesus.”

    It’s a wonder there aren’t more harried profs wanting to teach ID–although the fact that not many biologists would be needed for ID (a mega-church pastor could “teach” 25,000 at a time) could have something to do with that. Oh, and integrity, plus a real desire for knowledge.

    Glen Davidson

  2. 2
    Dhorvath, OM

    Hey, try and schedule some down time too. Recharging is important.

  3. 3
    steveclark

    You did labs that crashed and burned????? How dare you!!! Students are supposed to open the lab kit sold by a state-approved vendor, work through the approved worksheet questions, ‘do’ the lab, and then answer the questions on the worksheets that came with the lab kit!!

    Oh yeah, and you’re supposed to teach things like bacterial transformation and gel electrophoresis on a supply budget of $2.00 per student per year.

    At least that’s what I’m supposed to do in my AP Biology classes!

    It’s truly sad that this is my reality. High school Biology, even at the AP level is more and more test-driven. I’m the black sheep of my department because I don’t follow the pacing guide on a day-to-day basis. I have the audacity of taking more than 2 days to teach students the fundamentals of photosynthesis, and teaching them interesting facts about topics that go beyond the scope of the textbook and handouts.

    Give me a teacher that pushes the envelope, a teacher that tries new things on the fly, and yes, a teacher who sets up labs that don’t produce data over the teacher with worn out powerpoint presentations and handouts that have not been updated in 10 years. Sure, both teachers may impart the same basic knowledge to students, but I can predict which teacher will NOT have a bunch of students dozing off during class!

  4. 4
    etj2

    I think I love you steveclark.

  5. 5
    Antiochus Epiphanes

    Differnt classes, same story. I only have 2 final exams to give, 12 term papers and lab reports to grade, three job interviews to host, and assorted snot to clean and tears to wipe away. Then I am done, done, done.

  6. 6
    lauradiederich

    O_O Can I be your grad student? I have really shitty grades… And I’m majoring in Environmental Science… BUT I WILL GRADE YOUR PAPERS SO GOOD AND GET YOU COFFEE ALWAYS.

    Kudos to you for being brave and trying something new! I’ve been in so many classes where the teacher has obviously been giving the exact same lectures for years (I’ve had to retake some classes and I seriously got WORD FOR WORD THE SAME LECTURES). And SERIOUS kudos for you for actually running your labs! In all of the labs I’ve taken (two intro bio’s, genchem and organic) the labs were directly from the book, and run totally by TA’s (who mostly couldn’t speak English. No questioning their competence, but for real? HOW CAN YOU HIRE A TA THAT CANNOT COMMUNICATE WITH STUDENTS?) and we still had a lot of failed labs because the equipment simply didn’t work, or the TA’s couldn’t tell us what the book wanted us to do.

    The professors of my scholars program (like honors-light) made all of the students create websites. I seriously appreciated the crash course in using the internet to communicate. Can I say how fucking AWESOME it is that you made your students do science focused blogs?! SO great. Like… more than above and beyond. You are making a difference in the accessibility of experts and their knowledge to lay people. So much hi-fives.

    And yeah, this may sound like unreasoned buttering up, but for real- I fucking appreciate professors like you. You make college worth the thousands of dollars I pay for it :)

  7. 7
    'Tis Himself

    HOW CAN YOU HIRE A TA THAT CANNOT COMMUNICATE WITH STUDENTS?

    The folks doing the hiring aren’t the folks who care about the classes or the students.

  8. 8
    Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden

    PZ, I really, Really feel for you. I teach part time, and I lecture 3 to 7 hours a week, depending, it’s about 4 to 9 credit hours.

    I have **never** given the same lecture twice. Part of that is that I only finally broke into university teaching 2 years ago, but part is that, even when I can offer the same class again, I upgrade, add new information, which requires discarding some stoff, collapsing other lectures together, and on and on.

    Also, I speak off the cuff to some extent. I have an outline, I have goals for what I want the students to learn, but, and here’s the thing:

    You cannot know what the students will have difficulty with until you are in the classroom with the students!

    I mean, holy heck!

    I have had so many classes that *I* took where the lecturer went over the book chapter methodically, page by page, with language literally pulled word for word from the book – except that since it’s a lecture, it’s impossible to read the whole chapter, so it’s selected quotes.

    How, exactly, is doing the reading supposed to resolve questions from the reading?

    That stuff makes me want to turn green, scream, through my table through the white board, and charge off campus through a hail of machine gun fire to sit on a spire in Utah’s Red Rocks and mope.

    So even when I have the same lecture sceduled as I did the last time I taught the course, it’s never the same lecture. And not just, It’s not word for word, but in order to get the students to the same goal, I have to be smart enough and flexible enough and knowledgeable enough and perceptive enough to know what students are getting and find another path through the thicket of confusion to deliver it to them.

    THAT is not easy. Honestly, I don’t teach hard science, although I was a hard science major for a bit when I first when to Uni. I know that concepts are important in science, but there are also a lot of things that are simple facts. Facts that aren’t easily contested. When you are teaching people about human beings, so much of even empirical truth is counter to everyday experience, and when you get to important theories or concepts and people haven’t agreed on the basic set of facts from which those concepts are drawn – ugh!

    I don’t know to what extent this affects you, PZ, but it certainly affects my field, and makes every lecture a challenge.

    Good teaching, really good teaching, is very very difficult. I also tend to not settle for less than very good teaching, so to me there’s little room between competent and very good, but, hey, a woman’s got to have her standards.

    It sounds to me like you, PZ, are a good teacher, based on your willingness to try new things and admit when they go wrong, based on your willingness to modify your course to use what works best for your students, not you. I don’t know what your lectures are like, you haven’t described them. But I would imagine your singing and dancing is all about constant reassessment of the students, where they are at, and how they are moving (which, as has been proven, can be difficult to pin down simultaneously), and then responding to that by constantly changing your lecture. Yeah. That is work. That is performance. If I’m ever in Morris, I’d love to come see a class or two of yours. I think I might be able to learn something about teaching from you. I like to talk about this stuff with every good teacher. Subject affects tactics, sure, but the strategy is the same for all of us.

    and, at this time, also a little shout out to steveclark – hey, teach! You sound like another of the good ones, too.

  9. 9
    pHred

    P.Z. have you posted information on how you get your students to set up and attend to blogs for your class ? I am toying with doing something of the sort for my Environmental Case Studies course next semester. It has just turned into a writing intensive course and I am frantically seeking some innovative ideas to get them to actually engage with their writing rather then just ‘giving them five papers to write.’ If you have time I would really like to hear pros and cons of blogging for students.

    Three finals, and a couple hundred short anwer essays before I can celebrate anything, sigh. Then perhaps I can finally get the conference proceeding submitted for publication.

  10. 10
    Daniel Fincke

    Show business is hard work; getting up and doing 4 or 5 lectures a week (and about half of them new) is exhausting.

    13 a week for me. In November, I spent Saturday afternoon and nights in a virtual coma.

  11. 11
    Antiochus Epiphanes

    Crip Dyke: You must be a pretty good educator, your own damn self.

  12. 12
    ChasCPeterson

    *grumble*

  13. 13
    mikmik

    The best teachers I’ve had transmit the joy of thinking and learning, and get reward by seeing it happen in their students. I’ve had a couple, and they still are some of my fondest and most influential memories, 30 or 40 years later!

    steveclark, Crip Dyke, PZ, for you and teachers like you, I have the highest respect and gratitude!

  14. 14
    pHred

    Eight+ lectures a week and no TAs or assistance. Down to 81 short answer essays (and my brains are leaking out my ears now) but students are starting to turn in their energy self-assessment projects (should end up with something like 150-180 of them.) Sliding down the slope of grading hell for the next week.

    If anyone out there has some experience with using student blogs for coursework, I would be really interested in hearing your perspective.

  15. 15
    sunsangnim

    I really respect teachers like PZ and others who have commented here. I only spent a short time teaching science and never felt good at it. When you’re teaching “at-risk” 9th graders, 90% of your effort goes into discipline and management, calling parents, and having meetings with the counselor and assistant principal. As a brand new teacher, it was a fucking nightmare when kids would start fist fights in class or come to class drunk, high, or showing signs of abuse at home. Luckily I had one physics class a day, which was a lot more enjoyable. The 11th and 12th graders were slightly more mature. At least for that one class I could try to think about making interesting and fun labs without worrying about students breaking or stealing things.

    Losing my job due to budget cuts ended up being a great thing. Now I teach conversational English at a university in South Korea and it’s the easiest fucking job in the world. Part of me wants to do science again, but there’s no way I’m masochistic enough to go back to the US public school system.

  16. 16
    cry4turtles

    The biology of cancer? I know it’s not fair to the paying students, but I wish there was a way to follow this course online. I seem to be obsessed with learning everything I can get my hands on about cancer. I don’t know why; it hasn’t really impacted my life a whole lot yet, but if it ever does, I want to know exactly what I’m dealing with. There seems to be so much conflicting info (cancer is curable-no it’s not, cancer is environmentally influenced-no it’s not). Oh to be a student in Minnesota in the spring (she sighs).

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