Pure Pedantry

Why Grad Students Should Teach

Grad student Joel Corbo has a guest post at Cosmic Variance where he laments the lack of emphasis on teaching in physics PhD programs:

My relatively rosy view of physics education was shaken up not long after starting grad school at UC Berkeley (By the way, I don’t want to single out Berkeley as particularly flawed, as I’m sure its problems are shared by virtually every physics department in the US to one extent or another. However, I can only write about what I know and this is where I am). Back in the cocoon of the MIT undergrad experience, I came to believe that physics was awesome for two main reasons: (1) because it answers deep, fundamental questions about how the world works and (2) because it is a community driven, collaborative exercise that thrives on the effective sharing of knowledge among its practitioners. In my mind, grad school would build upon these dual pillars of awesomeness and help me become (1) a great researcher and (2) a great teacher.

The jury is still out on the great researcher thing, but it turns out that, in principle, grad school has precisely zero to do with becoming a good teacher. Oh, you can TA a class here and there, as long as that doesn’t get in the way of what grad school is “really” all about. The unfortunate thing is that the lack of value assigned to teaching seems very systemic, to the point of being embedded in the culture; perhaps this attitude appears to benefit physics in the short-term by weeding out all but the most “serious” students, but in the long run it does nothing but damage.

The damage done to grad students is fairly obvious. First of all, if they are not provided with encouragement and avenues to become better teachers, then they won’t improve their teaching skills as well as they could have. If you happen to believe that an essential part of being a physicist is the ability to pass physics on to future generations of students, to inspire them to follow in the footsteps of their intellectual ancestors, then it is hard to justify allowing people to graduate with PhDs who have not demonstrated the ability to do just that.

He also proposes some solutions.

I couldn’t agree more. 1) I have never understood something well until I have had to teach it. Teaching clarifies understanding and should be expected of grad students. 2) Corbo makes the point, and I agree, that enthusiasm is conveyed to the next generation by enthusiastic teaching. Without good teachers, from whence will the next generation of physicists (or neuroscientists) come?


  1. #1 cfcasper
    June 13, 2008

    I’m a grad student in rhetoric and my wife is in a teaching post-doc program in the biological sciences (she’s a geneticist) and I have a good deal more teaching experience already than she has. She always marvels after social events with my colleagues how much time we spend talking about teaching, because it’s almost unheard of among her colleagues.

  2. #2 Jim Thomerson
    June 16, 2008

    Teaching experience is a requirment for any new hire in my biology department.

New comments have been temporarily disabled. Please check back soon.