Confessions from the pulpit, I mean, lectern{0}

2013 may prove to be the year of challenges for me. A new administrative job with some awesome opportunities and the responsibilities to go with them. The Boston Marathon, at last. And far from least, offering a cancer biology class in an active learning format.

When I was first asked to teach the course, I thought, “no problem.” I’ve been teaching a sophomore cell and molecular biology course for 50+ students in a SCALE-UP setting for three years now, and each iteration worked better than the last. Cancer Biology was a senior level class. The students would be even more mature and many would be repeaters from Cell and Molecular Biology. The material was inherently interesting. And I’d taught a graduate level course in cell cycle and cancer many times. I felt a little guilty, as I often do when it comes to teaching. I really shouldn’t get paid to have this much fun. Then I asked about the enrollment. I didn’t want to take up precious time in the SCALE-UP classroom if we could all fit around a conference table. Or maybe we could just have class at Panera until the weather turned warmer and then we’d sit under a tree.

“A hundred twenty.”

“A hundred twenty, WHAT?,” I asked.

“Students.”

Gosh. We’d have to find a really large tree.

And therein I found the challenge. And hopefully the opportunity to earn my faculty paycheck. An “active learning” setting is the way to go, I am convinced. And really, as many others have said before me, does authentic learning ever occur if the learner is not active?

But to replicate the SCALE-UP setting for 120 students seemed near impossible. How would I find the time to connect with each student? And cancer biology is a dense and rich discipline. The best material comes from the scientific literature, and I want the best for my students. But that literature is difficult to locate and even harder to read. So how could I connect with and guide 120 students through this horrifying, fascinating and murky landscape called cancer biology? In the end, I reached way down into the recesses of my bag of teacher tricks and pulled out:

1) scare them away. Honestly, I didn’t mean to use this one. For the first day of class, I put on my cutest dress and smile and my cowgirl boots determined to sell everybody a ticket on  the Cancer Biology Express. I was a bit flustered when the pseudo-SCALE-UP classroom didn’t deliver everything promised and my laptop did not want to play nice with the projector, but all-in-all, I thought the first day went pretty well. However, by the end of the week 120 was down to 100 and today down to 93. Wow! I’ve never lost that many before. What happened? I’ve been told by some senior biological science students before that they reach my class without ever having had to write  or speak or work in a group for a science lecture class. If that’s the case, I can see how a class that incorporates blogging and team projects and daily discussion could seem like too much work or just plain scary. I’m sad to see them go, but 93 does feel a whole lot more manageable I have to admit.

2)- and this is what I really intended to blog about – lecturing. I’ve become a strong critic of professors whose exclusive teaching tool is the stand-and-deliver lecture. The sage on the stage who delivers a monologue while the students obediently try to capture his every word. Or go on Facebook. Or text their moms. Lecturing may be active teaching, but for the student, the experience seems the antithesis of active learning. But for 120 (OK, 93) students trying to learn content and context as advanced as cancer biology, I couldn’t think of any better way to help them through some of it.

So I decided to lecture once a week on Fridays. The first lecture was OK, but I was rusty. I wasn’t used to talking to students for more than 20 or 30 minutes, and I actually got a little winded. The second week, I had planned to talk about the discovery of oncogenes. It’s a wonderful story, one of the best in science. In the early 20th century, people thought cancer was contagious. And then one scientist discovered that sometimes it is, at least in chickens. Then he isolated the infectious agent and it turned out to be a virus. Interesting. Then decades later, early molecular biologists pinpointed the viral gene responsible for causing cancer and discovered that the gene’s origin is the chicken itself. And the chicken gene was perfectly normal and found in every cell. And the same could happen in humans, for example with human papillomavirus, which causes cervical cancer. As I was lecturing, I grew more and more animated. I wasn’t satisfied with my students learning the information, I wanted to captivate them with this tale. Yes, I wanted them to care as much about the src gene as I did. Gosh, I wanted to convert them.

Lecturing can be a bit of a rush, and by the end, I was feeling downright evangelical. In fact, after dedicating the class to one of my favorite college professors, Dr. Andy Laudano, who first told me the story of the src gene, I preached to  my students to make the effort to give a word of thanks to their favorite professors because that appreciation means a lot. Perhaps I went a bit too far. I hope not.

I’m more convinced than ever that lecturing can be dangerous, and I’ll be careful. On Sundays, I go to church and listen with both ears to the good word for an hour or so. Then I spend the rest of the week trying to put into practice what I heard. Sometimes it’s not easy, but that is when I learn the most. And while my lectures may be trivial in comparison, I hope that they offer a small measure of inspiration for my students to do the same.