Back at the pedagogy grindstone: intention

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.


7 responses to “Back at the pedagogy grindstone: intention

  1. Blake – really enjoy your reflections. One thought – what if, when you rethink your video materials, you consider a different model than “online lectures”. Perhaps “stories” or “rants” or “brilliant thoughts” or “video blog” or…. I think we have such a strong template for what constitutes a “lecture”, whether in class or out, that it constrains the way we think, and I know you have the creativity to find a different model that will be of more value for our students (and fun for you too).


    • I think that’s an interesting idea, Michael, though I think there’s a real range of what ‘lecture’ means… for example, I think my lectures, so full of contradictions and ambiguities, are at the opposite pole from those that plow through textbook material templates without the digressions or deviations that I think are so fun.

      But I’m in a quandry: I’ve been thinking that, in order to give the students a firmer armature to build on when we’re in the classroom, I should actually move my lectures closer to the robotic here-is-the-ma-ter-i-al-please-consume-now model, packaged in small, easy-to-swallow bites. Right now, the lectures reflect my own desire to present science as an unfinished business (and my own disordered mind)… The nut here is that this is an intrinsically disconcerting notion for grade-oriented students, so I’ve thought of just presenting vanilla building blocks online, then using the blocks to actually construct something really interesting in the classroom. I’m repeating myself.

      So thinking about an orthogonal solution: I must include the pac-dots that students crave and serve my own philosophy of science-as-living-process, and not overwhelm students with excessive online content, all while eschewing the ‘traditional lecture’ (whichever pole of ‘traditional’ your compass indicates). It sounds insane. But this is my only creative outlet. I will try. What I would like to see is a ‘map’ of my (idealized) content that might allow students to more easily navigate, and navigate at whatever depth (level of complexity) they like… YouTube playlists are so 20th century…
      fantasy learning management system

      • I think that both of us grew up in a world in which there were basically 2 ways to learn – read it in a book, or learn from a teacher. Technology has shaken this up and turned it in different directions. So now we are cursed with endless possibilities and choices. This is what happens when you explore new worlds without a map (or a GPS).

      • I have 0% new stuff to add. Only to just express that there is so much here to which I was just saying Yes. Yes. Yes.

        I.e., “Intrinsically disconcerting notion for grade-oriented students.” That is probably the closest phrase I’ve seen to describe student response to my teaching. I’m struggling to find “pac-dots” (again, perfect) that don’t compromise my ideals. I haven’t moved things to a flipped model, due to a. fear, b. time, c. lack of knowledge/training, but I’m contemplating it.

        Right now I’m toying with what I’m calling a “Bikram” model. A focus on repetition and ritual to try and get at the higher order stuff. Why not have problem sets for English, I say.

      • Thanks, Masaki… I was writing a different response, but I think I will just build that (and this) into a blog post! In short, I’m not sure I can really recommend the ‘flipped’ model over any other. Everything we do must somehow be a manifestation of our love of learning, and a need to help students see they must love learning, too… and I think we spend lots of energy making up for the fact that students are often not yet as smitten as we are, or the fact that they are too preoccupied (by grades, major requirements, jobs, food, sex, video games) to act on their love. I’m betting your ‘Bikram’ model is as much about encouraging a book-lover’s level of engagement as either traditional or trendy teaching styles are.

        Also, I thank you for your comment, as I think the stimulation that comes of interacting with colleagues might be the most valuable/fun part of this blog-exercise.

  2. Blake,
    I very much enjoyed this post and can now add the word mycorrhyzome to my vocabulary (on a tentative, superficial level, and I can’t pronounce it, but what a cool term). I am thinking about your colleague doing the beer lecture and captivating your students and your (momentary?) regret that you no longer do this. And then I think about my history classes as a student at UCLA; in the 500 seat lecture hall, I found the professors generally entertaining, but even when captivated, I can’t tell you more than a handful of things I remember learning from those lectures. Why? Because it was passively exciting, the way good TV is–and completely ephemeral unless I had a chance to discuss it with someone and to use it. I actually remember the professor playing with the microphone cord, and telling a joke, and I do remember the joke, because I retold it to my dad that night and boom! it stuck. It’s mostly the reading and writing that remains because I had to, as you say, do something, use it in thoughtful ways to explain a new idea. I admire the tinkering you’re doing with your online content to try and capture your passion for the subject in a way that engages students in the content rather than feed them information to memorize. Exploring the relation between your delivery and their use of it–a closer, tighter feedback loop–makes sense. Thanks for the provocative post.

  3. Wow, Mary, thanks! I think I semi-coined that term. It *is* out there, but my usage is a bit non-traditional. Anyway, I appreciate your response! It’s really tough, though, since (and sorry for repeating myself) students’ near term response to pushing them to ‘do’ is often so negative. For every “thank you for making me do that” email I receive 2 years after the fact, I get (insert depressingly large number here) “can’t you please just lecture to me?” comments. As you say, people love to be entertained. Or, anyway, that’s the challenge… getting it right, where “right” means that I manage to get the students to buy in now. Of course, it’s cool to get those emails from students in graduate school, but everyone needs some instant gratification now and then, even me!

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