06 July 2011

Am I ready to teach?

The question, from a backbencher: The Rt. Hon. P.M. will begin teaching his first solo university course next week. Is he ready?

The answer: As much as can be hoped.

The logistics are pretty well done. I spent the Fourth of July indoors, revising my syllabus for the Introduction to International Relations course I'll be teaching in a few days. I ordered the textbooks for the course months ago, so my biggest questions were whether I had to add too many additional readings (not really) and which of the dozens of articles I'd read on nuclear war were suitable for freshmen and sophomores. (Not many.) In what may yet prove to be a triumph of whimsy over experience, I also made Dr. Strangelove an "optional" reading--or, rather, viewing--for that day, which means that I now have to reserve a screening room.

What I'm most nervous about, of course, are the basics--whether the course is paced well enough, whether I can actually recall some of the treacherous details (like the precise ordering of the payouts of Prisoner's Dilemma), whether I'll be able to connect with a remarkably diverse group of students. The operationalization of this nervousness has come down to worrying about trivial things, like what template to use for my Keynote presentations or whether I can trust the University to consistently have technology unlocked in my room.

Behind this is my desire to be the Ultimate Teacher, who gives the sort of presentations that a cyborg melding of Randy Pausch, Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society, and Steve Jobs unveiling a new iPad would only dream of. This is unlikely to happen, although I think that I am a competent lecturer, for two reasons:
  1. I am a competent lecturer, but not THAT great.
  2. Giving a course is not like giving a presentation.
The first reason is easy enough to understand. The second is, I think, something that people misunderstand for reasons of both left and right deviationism. The right-deviationist attitude is that a course is essentially a transmission of ideas from the sage on the stage to the groundlings below. The objections to this are easy to list, and the most important is that this is not, actually, how people learn.

But the left-deviationist approach has just as many, if not more, flaws. It draws from the idea that courses are supposed to be some sort of egalitarian, Montessori-like exercise in self-development and growth. This, I think, might well be true, but practicable only in courses of, say, five or six--roughly the same size as graduate seminars, and for much the same reason. The expectations that this approach holds out are simply unrealistic. I have 42 students. I can't get to know them all as individuals in any sort of holistic manner in the span of five weeks; there simply isn't enough time. And at least some of the students, as a statistical regularity, will not be interested in sharing a deep learning experience--they would just like to pass.

So, this is the dilemma of the large lecture course. It's impossible to do much more than lecture for the bulk of the instructional time, but we also know that real, in-depth learning does not come from engagement with learning. Rather, as Richard Mitchell once noted, "It is not as we read the page that education illuminates us; it is when we look up." But I can't do that in the large lecture course. How, then, to avoid this Scylla and Charybdis? Well, in the first place, I do intend to take Andrew Gelman's advice about conference presentations: "Don't try to blow them away, just do something solid."

Some of my lectures are, I think, going to be pretty good. But I want them all to be good and thorough expositions of the important arguments that help students go beyond the reading and help them analyze the questions that we are dealing with.

In fact, that may serve as a nice mission statement for university lecturers: Don't teach the reading, teach the questions. We don't get into this business to engage with "The Literature," and I suspect that I am not alone in finding much of "The Literature"--that mythical, corpulent, ancient, ever-rotting leviathan--to be deathly dull. Rather, we find the world itself to be exciting, and the puzzles we try to solve to be fascinating.

This post has been nothing more than an excuse to link to Robert Morrison's talk on "The Lecture System in Teaching Science", which says everything I've wanted to say much better. So you should probably read that. But if you don't read the whole thing, at least read this:
What makes a teacher stimulating? Is it really the elegant presentation of a beautifully organized lecture? The students may admire a performance like that, and enjoy it as a tour de force; the lectures may be enormously popular and play to packed houses — but are admiration and passive enjoyment really what is wanted? What we really want to do is strike a spark in the students' minds. We want to reveal to them the beauty of ideas and concepts and rationality. The teacher and his personality play the key role in this. But it is not the teacher's wit and polish and delivery that are important. It is the teacher's enthusiasm for the subject that is enormously contagious. It is the students' seeing how a mind better trained than theirs approaches an intellectual problem. It is the intense pleasure the students get when they are led, like Socrates' slave-boy, to use, really use, their own minds. Surely, this is the kind of stimulation that we are looking for.

Now, like a real professor would, I'm going to go do research.

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