Yippee for syllabi!

One of our assignments for this course is to construct a syllabus. Oh what fun! And I’m being absolutely serious and not at all sarcastic. It has been a truly exciting assignment to work on. Finally, a “real” class (not a lab) that is all my own. A clean slate. I can start from scratch, build it from the ground up. “What shall we learn? How shall we learn it?” I enjoyed designing this course much more than I had anticipated.

I decided to go beyond the assignment itself. Dr. Fowler wants us to focus on the tone, the language, the principles, the learner-centerdness of it, and to not fuss with the minutia of the schedule and the like. But I realized that it would be good for my job-hunting adventures (soon to come) to have a complete syllabus on display. I understand fully well why our instructor does not need or want to see all the messy, pointless details, but a prospective employer would surely notice if that was lacking.

And so I’ve been writing the whole thing, and enjoying it thoroughly. I can’t wait to one day actually use it in a real classroom and with real learners. I wonder if they will be as excited about the syllabus as I am.

Class on 22 February 2012

At the end of our class on 22 February 2012, a student that I suspect is The Reluctant Blogger, made a comment about how much she dislikes blogging and the reasons for why. I think her comment struck a chord with others in the class, myself included. What was particularly interesting for me, however, was not that someone shared my discomfort toward blogging, but the way in which Shelli responded. To be honest, I was disappointed in the answer. I expected her to reflect on why some people may have legitimate reasons for not liking blogging as a class assignment. Instead, what I heard was her accuse the student of being in need of some self-reflection (as if she hasn’t been self-reflecting over the course of the semester about this assignment already). Rather than taking the comment seriously, our teacher suggested that the student should reflect on what’s wrong with them, as if something must be wrong with them if they disagree with the assignment. I have full faith that Shelli did not intend to insult or put down the student, but that was the effect. It was disturbing.

The other part of Shelli’s response was quite on-point and meaningful. She reminded us that we have “agency.” Don’t do the assignment if you don’t feel comfortable with it. This is of course a great answer and very true. And we, all of us, everyone, should always employ this in our everyday lives: do and don’t do things as an active choice. “Agency” is a very powerful thing.

Of course it is hard to ignore that we are the students and she is the professor and the power imbalance in this relationship is obvious. (If not, see Chapter 4 of Weimer 2002.) And so the answer to the question is correct in that, yes, we DO have agency over our actions, but although that’s a correct answer (and a thoughtful one) it is still disingenuous because it ignores the power dynamic. Of course I, as the student, can forgo this blogging assignment (and I’m still considering it), but I do so at a cost to my grade and, more importantly, to my relationship with my teacher. Furthermore, it is particularly noteworthy that we had just read Weimer’s chapter 4 and discussed it in class, which then seemed to be ignored in Shelli’s response to the student.

I think that a better answer to the students question on 22 February 2012, would have been to say “(1) You have agency; your actions are your own. (2) Hmm, I hadn’t realized that someone would have legitimate concerns about blogging. I’m going to have to think about this. (3) We are running out of time today, but let’s schedule a meeting and talk about this outside of class, or maybe during next week’s class time, etc.”

You can bring a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. I wish that this blogging assignment was less of us blogging and more about exposing us to blogging (different platforms, different existing blogs about education, different blogs by students, different ways to incorporate blogging into our classes, how to protect our privacy and that of our students when we use blogging in class, etc). Shelli should bring us to the watering hole of blogs, but not assign us to actually blog. Blogging is very personal and should remain as a choice. It may be the perfect platform for some people. But it is not the perfect platform for everyone: others may prefer to privately journal, some prefer to privately paint, and others may prefer to have actual real-life conversations face-to-face with actual human beings. Thus far I have learned that I hate blogging.

What’s with the scribbles?

This is a re-post because it seems that my original post got lost in the blogs.vt.edu reshuffling. Enjoy:

For the two of you reading this blog, you may have asked yourself “what’s with the scribbles at the top of the page?” If you have seen it before and know all about it, then feel free to move onto better, more interesting blogs and posts.

For those of you that may be dying to know about the scribbles, consider the following. This is part of Charles Darwin’s personal diary. And this entry is of particular interest because it is the first, ever, drawing of an evolutionary tree. The image had to be cropped for the aesthetic purposes of this website, but allow me to explain the figure. The ancestral species is 1, which then diverges into a separate line of species A (cropped off the page) and another line. That line then diverges into a species B, C, and D. Evolution. Booya!

When teaching biology, there can be no more important a topic than evolution. Biology is the study of life and nothing can be more fundamental to life than its evolution.

It is inspiring to see the elementary drawing of a madman putting to paper the thought in his head that explains so perfectly this fundamental concept. It is the “aha!” moment that we all hope to have as scientists, but few of us ever will. Hopefully, teachers have a better success rate at facilitating that “aha!” moment for students when they finally really, truly grasp something like evolution.

And finally, note the “I think” at the top of the page. How very profound.

What have you recently doodled?

The problem with blogging

I understand why blogging, as a concept, can be great. One can connect with a community that is physically far away. This can be your family in Virginia, while you are travelling the world. Great. It could be a political, social, or intellectual community that you are physically isolated from. It could be a community of fine china collectors who are the only ones that can relate to your passion for the exquisite porcelain from St. Petersburg, circa 1875. Great.

I am not organizing a revolution. I do not collect china. If my family wants to know about the adventures of living in rural western Virginia, then they can just call me. And so, what am I getting from blogging? And what I am giving to the blogosphere?


As someone who has only ever written 1 ½ blogs, the following is my uneducated and ill-informed interpretation of what’s wrong with blogging.

(1)   People feel ever so very important about themselves. Pathetic. (See similar sentiment expressed by The Reluctant Blogger.)

(2)   People become more isolated instead of exposed to new ways of thinking. When we talk with real human beings, we may be confronted by someone who thinks differently from ourselves. And this is good. We talk, we debate, discuss, argue, get angry, learn something, and hopefully end on a cordial note. When we blog, we look for other blogs that share our opinion and become increasingly more insulated from the “other” (gasp!). Example: I looked at a list of blogs from our GEDI course and the only one I read was The Reluctant Blogger. Why did I read this blog? Because the title caught my attention and spoke to my own point of view. I did not want to read the “I love blogging!” blog; I wanted to read other people agreeing with me. And while my unscientific survey of one blogger reading one other blog may not exactly be representative of the whole population, this example makes me think that maybe blogging is used to escape controversy and conflict, and find comfort and isolation in those nooks and crannies where we will be safe. That makes blogging fundamentally bad because it insulates us from other opinions.

(3)   Many people write poorly. For an example, see SciPed.

So, if I’m not organizing a revolution and therefore do not have any meaningful content to contribute, and I am not a brilliant author and therefore do not have any entertaining pros to contribute, then why should I blog?

What would Darwin do?

Teaching evolution today must be not unlike what Charles Darwin had to do. He faced an audience that was skeptical and at times hostile (if not to him, then surely to his ideas). Of course the main difference between then and now is that we have no excuse for our ignorance today. We have a plethora of evidence that supports the theory of evolution. And yet the audience may still be skeptical and at times hostile. How should we teach evolution today when we must teach the science, not in a vacuum, but in the hostile cultural context that science education is currently in? What would Darwin do?