11 January 2013

A foray into teaching – and a request for advice!

Posted by Jessica Ball

This semester, as part of an attempt to keep myself funded through the end of my PhD (always an uphill battle), I’m going to be teaching a smallish section of our introductory environmental science course. And the main topic is…deep breath…climate change! Not being an expert on climate change, this has me perusing background information to get ready for the content, but also looking at techniques for teaching controversial environmental topics. And I’m looking for help!

Here’s the deal: I’m sort of team-teaching with our paleoclimate professor: he gets the 300-person section, I get the 70-person section, and we share prep responsibilities for the material and labs. I’m not hugely concerned with the subject matter, since we’ll be concentrating very heavily on the scientific background necessary to understand how climate change affects Earth systems – atmospheric structure, weather vs. climate, natural hazards that can result from rising temperatures and sea levels, the effects on marine ecology, etc. etc. And I’m not worried about class size, since 70 people is a completely manageable group when you compare it to a giant lecture hall full of people whose names you might not ever learn. And I’m looking forward to the chance to hone my lecturing skills with a larger group than I worked with last semester, and outside of a lab setting.

But what I’m just the teensiest bit anxious about is how students are going to react to the subject matter, because the topic of climate change has been so politicized that it’s absurd to expect that somebody isn’t going to have a passionate reaction to what I’m going to be talking about. That’s pretty much the reason I don’t write about climate change here – in addition to the fact that lots of other people do a much better job than I could, I just don’t have the time to deal with the inevitable drama.

While trying to pull together material for classroom activities, I came across the Carleton SERC’s “Teaching Environmental Issues and the Affective Domain” article, which got me thinking about how I can approach my new teaching duties. Here’s a summary of the advice the article gives:

  • Start teaching objectively and with data – set the stage for later discussions that could deal with personal/political responses.
  • Use active learning techniques – engage the students so they don’t feel like they’re just being talked at about topics they may feel defensive about.
  • Use controversial or ambiguous topics judiciously, but as ways to encourage critical thinking skills and getting students to learn how to evaluate their sources of information for credibility and the strength of their arguments.
  • Don’t make everything depressing – talk about successes in environmental areas.
  • Clearly define how you will approach the topics you teach and what your goals are.
  • Don’t preach at your students (particularly not if your goal is to present the science rather than political or activist issues).

I think these are a great thing for me to keep in mind, and a good place to start, but bullet points do not a pedagogy make. What I want to know is, what experiences have you – my more experienced readers – had with teaching controversial issues? Or, if you’ve been in a class where they were being discussed, what approaches worked well for you as a student – and what didn’t? I’m looking for any kind of advice you can offer – discussion strategies, assignments that helped you/your students understand the material better, ways to mediate disputes (if they came up), what to do if a student publicly challenges you, and so on.

As a graduate student, I’m always (at least initially) a bit uncomfortable in a teaching position because I’m really not that much older than the students I’m in charge of (and in a few rare cases they’re older than me!) It can be hard for a grad student to establish their authority with a class in a normal situation, and in a situation where I know people are likely to hold very strong opinions on topics, I want to be sure that I present myself as both informed and impartial. Hopefully the students who have signed up for the class have chosen to take it because they’re at least vaguely interested in the topic, but I do want to be prepared if any come in with strong preconceived ideas about it. (The professor I am teaching with also teaches an upper-level climate course, so I’ll definitely be tapping him for advice, but it would be great to have outside input as well!)