Three years later: Teaching with a voice

Of all of our readings for this week, I enjoyed Dr. Fowler’s “The Authentic Teaching Self and Communication Skills” the most. It summarized my own experiences with teaching well. I’m in a fairly unique position this semester as an instructor. I taught labs for two semesters when I started my MS in 2013 and 2014, and now I’m teaching labs again in 2017 as part of of the requirements for my PhD program. I am having such a different experience this time around! Granted, this is a different institution and the course material that I’m responsible for this semester is also very different, but I don’t think those are the only reasons. When I think back to when I first taught, I was 23 years old and was just getting started in this world called academia. I was barely removed from my students in age and experience and pretty introverted. I had very little experience giving public presentations, let alone being seen as any sort of authority figure. Being responsible for 75 students a semester and getting called “professor” on a regular basis made me uncomfortable and anxious. Who was I to be teaching these students? Inexperience and impostor syndrome combined to make teaching incredibly stressful. Of course there were amazingly rewarding moments where I connected with students on personal levels or saw them improve over time, but those often felt overshadowed by my own frustration and resentment, stemming in the end from a lack of confidence I think. I was relieved when my teaching responsibilities were over, but also saddened. Teaching and sharing knowledge are so important across disciplines, so I wanted to do so much better! I wanted to enjoy it! I hoped that I would have the opportunity to try again.

Over the next couple of years I was consumed by my MS research, but I did have many opportunities to practice speaking and teaching in both formal and informal settings. With every presentation, I slowly but surely went from blindingly anxious, to nervous, to just some butterflies 30 seconds before the talk. In the moment it didn’t feel like I was making that much progress, but apparently I was! This became especially apparent when I started teaching again this semester. I don’t get nervous at all. It is mind-blowing to me the difference between now and then. I think my lectures must come across more clearly and the students genuinely seem to be enjoying themselves. As I mentioned before, there

This katydid is a member of the family Tettigoniidae (unless you completely mispronounce it in front of an audience)

are definitely differences between the course I’m teaching now versus the one I taught in the past, but I don’t think that it’s entirely due to that. I think I am more comfortable with myself as a speaker and instructor. I speak with confidence from my own experience during my previous degrees, my studies now, and my life in general. When I talk about the scientific method, interesting insect species, or the things that can (often humorously) go wrong during field work, I use real examples from my own research. I try to present myself as honestly as possible. I am unafraid to laugh with my students when I flub the pronunciation of a scientific name or if make some other relatively trivial error. No one can get everything right all the time! I try to leave space for both myself and my students to improve. I am both unapologetically sarcastic and prone to making cheesy jokes. This is as much for my entertainment as it is for theirs. I know that the material that they’re learning is tough, but it doesn’t have to be torture, and neither does teaching itself. As an introvert, I never thought I would get so much satisfaction from public speaking. I can report that I am enjoying teaching much more this time around, and would happily teach again in the future.

Traditional vs. Authentic Assessment

Assessment has been one of the main focuses in education for as long as I can remember. From elementary school onward, there was always some big state exam on the horizon, in addition to the nearly constant steam of other kinds of evaluations. Does this focus on assessment actual increase students’ abilities to learn? What about long-term retention of knowledge? Alfie Kohn suggests, citing many sources, that our obsession with assessment may actually be counterproductive. It causes students to focus on the wrong aspect of being in school. Rather than trying to “make the grade” students should be encouraged to enjoy the process of learning itself. The inherent enthusiasm for learning that most people have is not harnessed by a grades-centric approach. Kohn suggests that usually it is the instructors and administrators, not the students, that benefit most from a focus on assessment. Shouldn’t education at all levels ultimately be about the students? As  Diana Oblinger lays out in “Making the Grade: The Role of Assessment in Authentic Learning,” traditional assessment methods miss the mark . Authentic assessment is a superior alternative to traditional assessment. It focuses on students’ learning of concrete, real-world skills and critical thinking over time. Memorization of facts and adherence to rubrics is not found in authentic assessment regimes. Ideally, at the end of such a program, students would be prepared to creatively handle complex situations. Putting such a program into practice is difficult however, given the current status quo and funding difficulties. Perhaps over time enrollment in institutions that do not focus on grades will become more commonplace, but for now, the focus on grades remains.