When we left our hero, the sabbatical trip plans were starting to come together in outline only: no house, no research permit, no renter for our own place. The only progress to report is that I found a house to rent in Agujitas. Big sigh of relief, and now the other ‘I don’t knows’ loom larger. But I’ll update when there’s more to say…
For now, I return to a topic that’s constantly on my mind: how I’m teaching, and why I do it this way. A month or two ago, I had a very absent-minded professor moment when I saw that CSUPERB was planning a “Flipped Classroom 101” session at the upcoming symposium. I fired off a prim but angry email about how I knew something about flipped classrooms, and how I could offer advice should they decide they wanted my input. Well, Susan Baxter (the director, whom I know well from back in our Dahlquist Lab days) fired right back, reminding me that I had suggested the session at a steering committee meeting two years ago, and that I might know it was coming and that I was to help organize if I had deigned to come to the subsequent meeting 9 months ago. I sheepishly agreed to participate, and it looks like I’m being tapped for a talk. Oops. Typical. Of course I am glad to participate, since I seem to be on a hair trigger when it comes to folks knowing I’m an incredible guy. And then I spiral off into my “what the hell was I thinking?” mode: can I possibly have anything to say about teaching that anyone wants to hear?
The subject returns to my first post: what one does with all the classtime one has when one abandons the in-class lecture. As I was ruminating on on this topic, a visiting speaker derailed my thinking. I had invited Charlie Bamforth, of UC Davis brewing fame, to come speak to my fermentation course “Beer, wine, and spirits”. His talk was amazing: he tied all of beer brewing together into a neat package, from malting and kilning, to mashing and boiling, to fermenting, all using the off-flavor compound dimethyl sulfide as the thread. The students were captured by his personality, delivery, and material… I was, as well, as he peppered his lecture with stories from his various posts throughout the brewing industry in the UK.
Charlie was brilliant but, since everything is really about me, I started wondering why I’ve eschewed the chalk-talk in favor of my current method. It may be that I’m just not that dynamic, or that I don’t have the density of relevant anecdotes teachers like Charlie do, or that I just don’t have command of the material he does. In fact, I really love lecturing… I think I have a tendency to rhapsodize about protein structure, and there’s probably value in students learning from someone who’s really engaged with her or his discipline. But I have this conviction, shall we say, that students need to be manipulating ideas… this process allows them to create their own chemical intuition, their own reflexive ability to interpret, to synthesize; students listening to me are not practicing, are not building. So, I’m trying this other way.
Right now, though, I’m just trying to reach the finish line for this semester and, though it seems like a crazy time to question the point of it all, I’m soul searching. The greatest challenge to one who would guide students instead of lead them is getting them to participate. Now student preparation is challenging in any class structure and in my hottest classroom delivery I think maybe 10% of the class chimes in with comments and questions. The rest of the class is passively absorbing or scribbling madly… whatever their way of coping with an hour of my madcap, frenzied delivery. For a ‘flipped’ class, in which I don’t lecture, student preparation (or its lack) is more immediately obvious, since the students are expected to do something. So they must complete the readings and watch the videos before coming to class.
But this post isn’t about haranguing students to work harder, it’s about me figuring out how to motivate more of them to really manipulate the material. I have created a series of video lectures that very much mimic my own classroom style; they ramble through ideas using sparse slides and many odds and ends from the literature. And I have created a whole slew of classroom projects to get students handling the material, applying what they’ve studied. But my epiphany of the week is that these two strands aren’t always perfectly coupled. My projects build on lecture ideas, but the connections are sort of organic, a mycorrhyzome of dense facts and definitions and philosophies; the deathcap of a project sprouting up from the tangle is related, but so shiny and toxic and distracting that the connection is easily mislaid. So perhaps it’s no wonder that student preparation doesn’t always show… maybe it can’t show.
In the end, I think I must discard my beautiful lectures en masse, and reconstruct them with intentional and obvious connections to the projects. The online lectures must leave the students feeling supported in this new task of owning their own knowledge. I think it’s interesting that this actually takes me even father away from the traditional model that my old lectures represent; I have to find a way to pour the same love and intensity that went into those old talks into tomorrow’s atomized, discrete tutorials. And will that let them become masters? Well, I’m more of a Time Lord than a Master fan anyway… maybe all I’ll prepare them for is bumbling, accidental, occasionally brilliant problem solving, when what they want is total domination of the MCAT universe.