This month’s Scientiae is about overcoming challenges: our worst moments, and how we survived them. I’ve had trouble deciding which story to tell. Field camp? Running out of food while dropped off by helicopter? Not finding the rocks that were supposed to be in my dissertation field area? Bad dates (geologic, that is)?
I had some disastrous fieldwork in grad school, yeah, but I think my worst experience came from teaching. In fact, my teaching lost me a job. But I’m getting ahead of myself…
I was hired at the last minute for a one-year replacement position at a small liberal arts college in the Northeast. When I walked in, my teaching load was already set. Five courses, two in my specialties (structural geology and metamorpic petrology), one intro physical geology class, one anything-I-wanted January term class, and one large non-majors class, Earthquakes and Volcanoes.
I’m not really qualified to teach about earthquakes or volcanoes. Yes, I’m a structural geologist, and we study faults… except that I study rocks from the deeper, ductile part of the crust. And I’ve never had a seismology course. I learned the difference between P- and S-waves from direct personal experience, wedged in a doorway shouting “is this an earthquake” during the 1989 Loma Prieta (World Series) quake. And as for volcanoes… well, I was a teaching assistant for Petrology as an undergrad, and I can tell igneous rocks apart. But that’s a long way from knowing all the entertaining stories needed for such a specific class for students who wanted entertainment for their science credit.
The guy who designed the course was going to be filling in for someone else who was on sabbatical, and I was going to be filling in for him, just that one time. How bad could it be?
I was 27 years old, and looked 21. I wasn’t comfortable speaking in front of large groups, though at least my voice is loud enough to carry to the back of a lecture hall with horrible acoustics. And the class had a reputation. The guy who designed it had walked into the first day of class and announced “Welcome to Earthquakes and Volcanoes, otherwise known as Shake and Bake.” The class immediately became known as the easiest class on campus.
I didn’t do a great job with it. I taught from other people’s notes, I tried to cover too much stuff, and I simply wasn’t comfortable with it. I didn’t know what the point was, other than to give students a science credit that was easy (but not too easy).
At the end of the semester, my teaching evaluations said things like “I can’t believe I paid $28,000 for this class.” (This was fifteen years ago – tuition at that school is much higher now.) But it was over. And I had been hired for the tenure-track position, and I had thesis students and equipment to set up and new classes to plan.
I went through my first review the next fall. Normally, the two-year reviews are brief, just a double-check to make sure that the department made the right hiring decision. The committee on reappointment doesn’t even visit classes unless there’s a problem.
They visited mine.
I passed the review, but with big warning flags: they were concerned about my teaching. Not about anything they had seen themselves, though they had suggestions about not allowing students to leave the room to blow their noses and so forth. No, they were worried about my ability to teach large non-majors classes. In particular, they told me that if I wanted to pass my four-year review, I would need to show that I could teach Earthquakes and Volcanoes.
So I redesigned the course. I didn’t use anything like the tutorial I’ve been working with now, but I thought about some of the same issues. What, exactly, did I want non-science majors to get from the last science class they would ever take? My answers had more to do with critical thinking, and less to do with specific course content, so I tried to think of activities that could get 100 students to think during a 50-minute lecture. I stole ideas from every bit of educational literature I could find, and when I couldn’t find advice, I made stuff up. I had students look at rocks. I did a demo of sea-floor spreading involving rolls of cash register tape, Sharpies, and a recording of some excessively dramatic classical music. I brought in maps. I had students try to evaluate shaking risk in different parts of the Bay Area. (This was before the excellent Association of Bay Area Governments web page became available.) When I couldn’t think of anything else to do, I used some kind of think-pair-share questions. I graded participation in in-class exercises by having students turn in something every day – sometimes a worksheet, and sometimes a notecard with answers to discussion questions. I changed all my exams to make them open-book, and wrote questions that involved problem-solving or interpretation of new information, rather than regurgitation of lecture notes. I got advice from my colleagues, and dealt with criticism about my organization by writing lecture outlines on the side of the chalkboard. (I still do that for all my classes – I think it helps the students who crave organization, especially when I do non-lecture kinds of things in class.)
On the first day of class, I decided to start the in-class activities right away, so I asked each student to turn in a notecard. On the notecards, they were supposed to write one question that they were curious about.
Amongst the 100 responses, I got:
What’s your sign, who’s your daddy
Is it true that this is the easiest class on campus?
I was a bit shaken by the cards, and showed them to the senior woman in my department. But I was the professor, and they were the students. I was supposed to be the one with the power. I put them into a file and went on with the class.
It was a lot of work, especially keeping track of all of the in-class exercises. I nearly lost my voice a few times. I felt trapped by my plans to do some kind of in-class exercise every day – there were times when I just wanted to lecture, and the exercises felt a bit forced. I felt intimidated by the large young men who sat in the front row. I wore a special necklace made of beads given to me by a group of women friends, for luck and strength.
My teaching evaluations were much better, though students commented that the course was easy.
The next fall, I went through my four-year review, and once again, the committee called me in to talk about my teaching. I needed to keep teaching Earthquakes and Volcanoes, because they were concerned that it was too easy.
I wondered if there was anything that I could do – after all, the students came into the first day of class expecting it to be easy. I wanted to design my own non-majors class, with a different title and a different focus and a new reputation. But I also needed to cover classes for another colleague on sabbatical, and I would be teaching new preps again. (By the end of my fourth year, I had taught somewhere around nine different courses.) And I needed to get my research written up and published – I had switched to an entirely different research area when I moved across the country, research that was entirely collaborative with undergrads. I was happy with the work, but writing the papers (and grant proposals) took time – time that I didn’t want to spend on yet more course design. Besides, there wasn’t time to put in a new course proposal, and the schedule had already been set, and so forth and so on.
So I taught Earthquakes and Volcanoes again.
I don’t remember as much about the third time. I was still changing things, writing new homework assignments, figuring out which in-class work was effective and which was not. In the end, I think it was all right – not the greatest class I’ve ever taught, but not bad. The teaching evaluations were better, again. Students still said they expected it to be easy, but when other professors called it “Shake and Bake,” I didn’t have full control over the students’ expectations. The students complained about some of the homework assignments, called them “busy work,” but they complained most about the assignments that I had inherited from other members of my department. The class wasn’t perfect, but the flaws were things that had existed before I had arrived.
I went on sabbatical, got my new research published, and convinced my department to let me design my own class. I taught courses that I enjoyed when I came back, and had a great group of thesis students, and was ready for the tenure decision. It hadn’t been easy, but I felt like I had acheived the things that I needed to do, and my department agreed. I submitted my tenure file, nervous about what to say about Shake and Bake, but knowing that I had my department’s full support.
I didn’t get tenure. My teaching wasn’t “excellent enough.” And the evidence: students talked about Shake and Bake being “easy.”
That was more than nine years ago. I got a new job. I’ve got tenure. I’ve got a five-year-old kid. I teach the course that I wanted to design – it’s not perfect, and I’m still working on it, but I’ve got the support of the institution to keep trying.
I’ve been nominated for teaching awards.
And students may say that I’m a good teacher, but they never, ever, ever say that my classes are “too easy.”