Biology is at once among the easiest and most
difficult subjects to teach. What makes teaching biology easy is the universal
interest and relevance of the subject matter. What could be more captivating
than learning about the astounding diversity of life on earth? Teaching biology
is also easy because it comes complete with a universally accepted methodology
for establishing new biological information – the scientific method, and a
universally accepted and extraordinarily powerful central organizing theory –
evolution by natural selection. What makes biology difficult is the sheer volume
of current biological knowledge and the complexity of life itself. This is
compounded by the fact that both the central methodology and the central theory
run counter to conventional reasoning and conventional explanatory language.
Living within the scientific method means accepting that there are no absolute
facts, only agreed upon observations, and no absolute proofs, only degrees of
certainty. Every nugget of scientific information comes with its own empirical
provenance, which must also be evaluated, cataloged, retained, and periodically
updated. Employing natural selection as an explanatory and predictive mechanism
means either rejecting more comfortable explanatory systems or reconciling
yourself to maintaining multiple perspectives. It demands a "first-rate
intelligence", which requires in the words of F.
Scott Fitzgerald, “the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same
time, and still
retain the ability to function.”
My goal, therefore, in teaching any biology class is to help students come to terms with these inherent difficulties in learning and doing science productively. In animal physiology and neurobiology courses this involves encouraging students to think mechanistically and to avoid the vitalist explanations with which they most likely have been raised. Learning how to process and apply algebraically described relationships and laws is a particular challenge in today’s math-phobic environment. My other central message in the physiology class is that you only really understand a physiological process to the extent that you can explain it at all relevant levels of analysis, from physical chemistry to organismal ecology. In zoology and anatomy courses many students feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of unfamiliar words and names. My primary task in these classes is to provide them with relatively simple frameworks on which to hang all of this information, and a toolkit for helping them recognize and retrieve this new terminology. One example of such a framework is providing and highlighting word origins in learning taxonomic and anatomical names. My other central message in these courses is that the best way to get comfortable with new names is to practice, practice, practice. In animal behavior and neuronal systems classes my task is to encourage students to go beyond the simple, teleological explanations of behavior supplied by everyday discourse and to rigorously apply physiological and evolutionary mechanisms in developing explanations and testable predictions.
I like to think of myself as a pragmatist in terms of the teaching methods which I use. I regularly teach five upper-level courses and I employ a different set of methodologies for each, within the limits allowed by standardized course schedules. In general, I prefer to have laboratory exercises precede the associated classroom discussions. I find it easier to have an interactive discussion when students have already worked with the subject of discussion in a hands-on exercise. I like scheduling formats which allow me to freely interweave laboratory, lecture, discussion, and group exercise components. An extreme example of this would be my current Neurophysiology course, which is almost entirely laboratory-based, with just enough discussion to deal with questions raised in the laboratory. I try to use current technology whenever it is affordable, appropriate, and actually facilitates learning. In particular, I tend to incorporate computer simulations into almost every course that I teach, but only where I am convinced that they save time and reduce student frustration. In other cases I often encourage students to go “old school”, for example to graph data by hand rather that to accept Excel’s idea of what a particular plot should look like, or to commit the steps of cellular respiration to memory by repeatedly facing a blank piece of paper.
I also think of myself as a pragmatist when it comes to assessment methods. I think that it is important to expose students, especially pre-graduate and pre-professional students to all of the kinds of “tests” that they will face later in their careers. In my classes students variously take conventional written exams with multiple choice, short answer, and essay questions, take computer based quizzes via interactive Personal Response System (PRS) hardware, present reviews of the articles from the professional literature, present their own laboratory and research results in written, verbal, and poster formats, write and revise open-book worksheets in a task-based format, and even face a one-on-one verbal final exam on neurophysiological instrumentation.
I cannot imagine a personal career that did not revolve around teaching. It is what I do best in science and is arguably my only true gift. The world and the society in which we live are sufficiently complex that almost any occupation which creates and sustains at one level damages and degrades at another. Teaching is my way of leaving my mark on the world and assuring myself that I am unambiguously contributing to the greater good.