Lessons learned from a 43-year long teaching career

Prof. Harold White is an Emeritus Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of Delaware, and is a proponent and practitioner of problem-based learning (PBL). Presented below is his lecture on the lessons he learned from a 43-year long teaching career at the university, presented on the occassion of his retirement from the institution.

I found Prof. White’s lecture very good food for thought. He makes ten points over the course of his lecture as the lessons he gleaned from his teaching career. Not in the least being impudent here, but somehow all of those ten takeaways seem like things a teacher just ought to know. But then, who am I kidding? As I sat listening to his video, I realised there were things in what he said that I learned only because I taught. Not because I would teach someday.

I went into teaching after a self-imposed sabbatical of teaching myself philosophy. I had workable (even if I say so myself) ambitions of integrating history and philosophy of science in my lectures. I did what I could where I could, given the usual constraint of covering the syllabus in time. But somehow something was still missing. Yes, the students were excited when we discussed atomism or when I boldly declaimed borrowing from Paul Needham: water is not H2O. But it all had to stop at some point in the core classes because the curriculum demanded I focus on something else about the atom or water.

Things were however different when I found myself in the elective courses Research Methodology and Forensic Science that I offered. Yes, I had done research, but no one had taught me Research Methodology as a course. And again yes, I knew the interdisciplinary concepts that went into making forensic science, but again, I had never taken a course in the subject. Consequently, I researched and prepared harder for these elective courses than for my core chemistry courses. Seems funny, but it was in these classes I began to realise how one topic can be taught in different ways. Pedagogy – that word began to make sense when we discussed Jane Goodall with her chimps in the Kenyan jungles, and when O. J. Simpson’s Italian shoes steered the direction of the class proceedings in our discussion on footwear impressions. But even then, these were mere case studies to me.

It was only recently through the works of Rick Moog and Harold White when I was formally introduced to guided enquiry and PBL that realisation dawned. Perhaps most of us as teachers are already adopting concepts from educational research without knowing that it’s a thing. But then, yes, having been exposed to the concept, I did realise directions I had not taken simply because I didn’t know they would lead somewhere. It is only now with hindsight that I know that O. J. Simpson’s case would be a classic contender to set up a PBL in Forensic Science. I did a case study, but a PBL session would have been so much more engaging.

Richard Feynman once said philosophy of science is as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds. And I did see this general attitude towards (history and) philosophy of science being reflected by some colleagues during my postdoc and also while I taught. Education research too seems to suffer the same fate. I feel sad, and I feel bad. In our bid for more and more narrowly focussed specialisations, we have forgotten that a good education is to make us think. History and philosophy and sociology and literature have much to offer to (and take from) science if we’d just open our eyes and really observe.

Video source: http://www1.udel.edu/chem/white/Talks.html

The Research Question

How do you choose a good research question? This is something I have thought about and discussed with my students. It helped that I offered the course Research Methodology while at WCC, for this is the course where I really got a chance to go deep into my own perceptions of research.

The two primary criteria that I remember discussing with the students in answer to that opening question are: interest and feasibility.

Interest – well, that’s self-explanatory. You need to have your heart in the research that you do. Otherwise, it becomes a drudgery and you are better off without it.

Feasibility. Yes! You need to know whether what interests you is really doable.

And to think about the do-ability, you must ideally be thinking about the time and resources at your disposal.

And to arrive at this intersection of interest and feasibility, a good researcher would rely on literature review.

When one says ‘literature review’, I understand that the tacit assumption is that along with reading, one is continually thinking and planning how to implement one’s own research. And by the time the literature review is ‘done’, the protocol at hand would most likely be very different from what one had when the review had just begun. It’s a good sign. This all makes sense, but the reason why I am writing this post is because I chanced upon this article in Molecular Cell titled How to Choose a Good Scientific Problem. There are two things I especially liked in this piece, and thought I should make a record of it for anyone who’d be interested, but more so for myself.

Uri Alon in writing this piece is being straightforward and practical, but I sense a depth in his writing as he takes a grounded view of things. Humane, that was the word that sprung to my mind when I read the article first.

So. The first thing:
The literature review phase, when one is apparently reading and thinking things through takes a philosophical bent in Alon’s mind.

In my lab, we have a rule for new students and postdocs: Do not commit to a problem before 3 months have elapsed. In these 3 months the new student or postdoc reads, discusses, and plans. The state of mind is focused on being rather than doing.

Being rather than doing. It is an essential clarion call for the times we live in, more so in academia. Personally, I have been besieged with temptation to rush ahead and do things, so I do understand the gravity in just being. In a culture that beseeches us to ‘Just do it!’, it is refreshing to be asked to just be.

I suppose in a certain sense, we all do sit with our ideas. But perhaps the question here is do we give those ideas sufficient time and space to germinate?

The second thing. Alon writes:

Starting Point: Choosing a Problem Is an Act of Nurturing

What is the goal of starting a lab? It is sometimes easy to pick up a default value, common in current culture, such as “The goal of my lab is to publish the maximum number of papers of the highest quality.”

However, in this essay, we will frame the goal differently: “A lab is a nurturing environment that aims to maximize the potential of students as scientists and as human beings.”

Choices such as these are crucial. From values—even if they are not consciously stated—flow all of the decisions made in the lab, big and small.

Nurturing and Values. Those are big words. Words with heft. And when one is using such words to describe what one does, I am certain there’s something very right happening there.

This was essential reading for me!

Please read the article in its entirety; it is freely available. It is good food for thought.