Telling Stories in Class

In my upper level course this semester, I am really trying to interject personality into the lectures and discussions. By personality, I don’t (just) mean humor and compassion. What I also mean is that I am trying to convey that our subject matter is an area of active research, done by (gasp!) real people.

I started the term by giving the “old white guy tour,” summarizing the historical development of the field and some of the key figures that have contributed. I called it the “old white guy tour” which at least got a smile from one or two of my students. I wanted to acknowledge that I was aware that what I was presenting lacked female and minority representation. When I got to the contemporary crop of researchers, I made sure to point out the (few) women. But I think every name I mentioned belonged to a Caucasian. There are definitely some minorities doing research in the field, but they haven’t risen yet to the all-star level. Hopefully that will change.

As we go through the class and read the literature, I am trying to point out that the names on the papers are more than just names. I’ll say things like “This work came out of Young Gun’s Ph.D. research, work that he did with his advisor Elder Statesman. And here are there pictures and what they are working on currently.” Since my students are mostly juniors and seniors, I figure that by telling such stories, maybe I will pique someone’s interest and they will decide to apply for graduate school with Young Gun, Elder Statesman, or even … me (a practice that is encouraged in our youthful MS program).

I also tell them stories about my own research and field experiences. Selfishly, I do it because it’s a lot easier to accurately and enthusiastically describe my own research than things I’ve only read about in papers. I also do it because I want to humanize scientists and the professoriate, and again, it’s easiest to use myself as an example (cf. this blog). Finally, I do it because, if they are not going to see women’s names on the papers we are reading, my students (male and female) need someone to show them that women CAN do this. Women can go in the field, in the lab, in the computer programming. Sure, conditions can be rugged, days can be long, experiments can be tedious, and math can be hard, but none of those things precludes the full participation of women.

The slideshow history of -ology may feature a bunch of old white guys, but I’m hoping that the next chapter will be multi-ethnic and fully populated by both women and men. And I’m going to try to help realize that future by continuing to tell stories.


  1. #1 chezjake
    January 30, 2008

    I’m not sure about your -ology, but in my undergrad days in biology (way back when) I had two good profs who also used their discussions of historical figures in their fields to introduce both the methods those figures pioneered and their rationales for research/development of scientific method. Since the early stuff tends to be fairly simple in terms of what we know today, using examples from the past seemed to make some concepts easier to understand (and then to apply further as the course progressed).

  2. #2 csrster
    January 31, 2008

    There wasn’t much history in my undergrad lectures but I do remember one lecture which went something like …

    Here is the Einstein theory of anomalous specific heat.

    This theory is wrong.

  3. #3 Mommyprof
    January 31, 2008

    That is a neat idea – especially for upper-level students. I feel like a lot of our students see the field as the body of knowledge they must master to get a bachelor’s degree…

  4. #4 Becca
    January 31, 2008

    What a great approach!
    I second what chezjake said- I had a very good instructor who told the story of how exactly the central dogma came about, and the descriptions of elegant experiments made things much more understandable.
    I’ve also always loved reading biographies and descriptions of science that include *people*, so I definitely think that makes things interesting.
    I do have to say though, it gives me pause you can’t find any non-caucasian researchers. I can’t say about your -ology in particular, but science in general is so international it seems a bit odd. And of course, “star” recognition in science is only partly about doing elegant experiments that make good teaching lectures… it’s also about knowing people and getting your work read. Maybe it’s worth spending a little extra time on.

  5. #5 Zuska
    January 31, 2008

    Some -ologies have been more welcoming to “others” than other -ologies. And some have been better about letting the others into the official story of the tradition; in others, the real and important contributions of “others” have been masked.

    I see what you are doing as part of “telling the story of the group” and you are doing it in a great way. Acknowledging that part of the group’s history is the exclusion of others is important in dismantling that exclusion; calling attention to who is doing the work and what connections exist is too.

    Plus, it sounds like a very fascinating way to teach -ology! So every body wins!

  6. #6 sciencegirl
    February 1, 2008

    Going from “scientists = old (dead?) white guys” to “scientists = real people” can be tricky for some; I am glad you found such a great way to convey it!

  7. #7 Dave Briggs
    February 1, 2008

    And I’m going to try to help realize that future by continuing to tell stories.

    Good! Keep up the great job! As a 55 year old white male I can tell you that I think at least part of the problem is society has been in flux and some parts haven’t caught up yet. When I grew up the stereotype that was fed to us from birth was the Leave it to Beaver mind set. In the 21st century I think there is room for every gender, color, etc., in every field. Actually you usually lose when you won’t allow another point of view that may have never dawned on you!
    Dave Briggs :~)

  8. #8 Mike
    February 4, 2008

    Your method of teaching sounds like a boring addition to your class that will impede student learning. Adding biased commentary “old white guys” will alienate some of your students and inhibit student learning. If your goal is to turn off some of your students and decrease what they learn, you found a good method.

  9. #9 ScienceWoman
    February 4, 2008

    Mike: Obviously, I disagree. I think it is important to acknowledge the history of a discipline and how what we know is shaped by who is doing the work. Since my students will be seeing these names repeatedly as they read the text and papers, having some faces to put with the names should increase their interest. That said, if you were my student, and made your comment to me after class or via email, I would be happy to hear it, and especially any strategies you would have for making the class more engaging.

  10. #10 Lab Lemming
    February 4, 2008

    The old white guy method is problematic in that it makes people assume all old researchers are dead white guys, to the point where they don’t realize that significant discoveries (e.g. the Earth’s inner core) were made by old white gals.

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