30 September 2011

Back to school: Accretionary Wedge #38

Posted by Jessica Ball

Anne over at Highly Allocthonous wants to get us thinking back-to-school thoughts in this month’s Accretionary Wedge, and as a (grad) student, I’ll tackle the question aimed current geology students:

If you are a current or future student… what do you want to know about life and careers in the geosciences? Are there things you aren’t getting to learn or do in classes that you think are important? What sort of experiences do you want to get out of school and how do you think school can or should help you prepare for a career?

One of my biggest questions – and one that I think a lot of my peers share – concerns a deficiency that is built into the very academic system we “grow up” in. It’s our propensity for taking a graduate student, or someone with a newly-minted graduate degree, who up until this point may have been concentrating solely on learning geology, and plunking them into a classroom with little to no training on how to teach geology.

Seriously, why do we do this? In every educational setting up to the college level, teachers are expected to have extensive training (usually an entire degree), be certified to teach in the state, and then they usually have to take continuing education credits to stay certified. But after that? Get that PhD, and you’re automatically qualified to be in charge of a class full of people straight out of highschool. This seems totally backwards to me. As a new grad student, I had just three days of non-science-specific training before I had to teach several introductory geology labs – and in retrospect, I can see that there were a lot of things I could have done better. (I actually wrote a post on this way back when I was teaching labs, and I pretty much still feel the same way.)

What I’d like to see in a grad school setting (or at least in my own department, if this situation isn’t a universal one) are some requirements for taking education classes before they’ll let you go for a teaching position in the sciences. Having a PhD definitely doesn’t guarantee that you have any real training in how to teach, because taking a class is not the same thing as teaching it. Give us some real instruction in effective classroom methods – don’t make us play catch-up for the rest of our careers! An early-career professor is already going to have enough on their mind – setting up a lab, supervising students, putting together tenure packages – without having to teach themselves how to teach!

I’d also like to see better training for incoming grad students – such as shadowing a current lab instructor before getting chucked in front of their own class. Being a TA is a great way to support yourself as a grad student, but it would also be great if departments could make some provision for giving their TAs time to learn how to teach first. Make at least one education class a required course, or offer some lessons on teaching methods as part of an “Intro to Grad School” course! Make it easier for us to get some training before you chuck us in the shark tank! Observing how the classes we’re taking are taught is all well and good, but in that situation our attention is probably on learning the material and passing the course, not planning how we’d teach it if you were the instructor.

I’m in the unique position of having a fellowship to support my research, so I’m not teaching at the moment. But if I do decide to teach when I graduate, I’m going to have to go out of my way to find extra training opportunities if I actually want some instruction in pedagogy. (Callan did this by getting an MS in science education – which is an excellent idea! – but what if you don’t have the chance to complete another degree before you start teaching?) There are great resources out there for science educators (Carleton College’s Science Education Resources Center and workshops come to mind), but this still feels to me like an after-the-fact fix and not a preemptive strike.

I’d like to see this change in the geosciences – and really, in any science, because I know this isn’t just limited to my field. If there are provisions for training graduate students in pedagogy in other colleges in universities, I’d like to see them become more widespread, because we don’t have much in my department.

(Sorry if this comes out a little choppy – I’m currently recovering from the latest cold to be passed around the department, and decongestants don’t have a very good effect on my ability to write coherently.)