The Bug Geek

Insects. Doing Science. Other awesome, geeky stuff.

Tag Archives: Teaching

Does teaching matter?

Some of you may recall that I have been the teaching assistant for an introductory zoology lab for the past few years. When the powers that be restructured the lab in a major way last year (cut the number of lab sessions in half), I took the initiative to make some pretty significant changes in terms of the material being taught and how it was presented. I am tweaking things even more this term, based on feedback from last year’s students and on some new pedagogical approaches I’ve learned.

Since the current labs are definitely better but not best, and would really benefit from a thoughtful and thorough revision and updating, I got this idea that I would approach the chair of our department and offer my (paid) services to do the work, perhaps over the summer since my field component won’t be so heavy this year. Not knowing whether this would be red-tape-or-pecking-order-ly acceptable, I went and spoke to my advisor and told him my idea.

I mostly expected him to say: “It’s not really appropriate for a student to take on that kind of role,” and I would have accepted that. If that didn’t happen, the alternative I’d imagined was something like, “Cool. This would be a great course development/teaching experience. Approach the chair and check it out, but make sure you’re still getting your research/publications done in a timely way,” which I would have perceived as both awesome and perfectly reasonable.

But what I heard, and what surprised me, was this: “No one reading your CV is going to care about something like that. It’s not a good use of your time. Write and publish papers. That’s really all that matters.***”

I’m well aware of the importance of publications as the “currency” of academia, and their role as indicators of one’s research activities. I get it. I have a half-dozen manuscripts lined up (in my head, anyways), and want to get them all at least in press/under review before I have to start worrying about securing post-doc funding.


I also thought that being an academic had something to do with teaching. Like, that maybe 1/3 of your time would be devoted to preparing, delivering, and developing instructive materials for students (the other 2/3 to research and administrative duties). And, in my happy little bubble of wonderfulness that is the way I imagine academia to be, I thought that GOOD teaching would be valued by the university that hired me.  My line of reasoning therefore was this: demonstrate solid teaching experience on your CV and this would be considered an important and good thing during the hiring process – all other things being equal (publications, awards, etc.), a strong teaching portfolio could move your CV to the top of the pile.

Apparently I was wrong: it doesn’t matter.

Am I THAT off base? Is it only in my dreams and imagination that there are universities/colleges that place equal (or at least close to equal) emphasis on strong research abilities AND strong teaching abilities? Surely such places exist?

Teaching is important to me; it is something I enjoy and take pride in being good at. I take seminars or workshops when they’re available; I read things; I observe good instructors/lecturers when I can find them and do my best to pick up some of their good habits; I ask questions of those I respect; I ask my students what they want and what works for them.  I honestly believed that these efforts would not just be personally rewarding (which they are), but that there would also be a professional payoff.

Someone, please tell me it matters.


***This same person happens to be someone who is on my list of “really good teachers”


Edited to add:

Relevant blog posts from elsewhere, just to add to the discussion:

Female Science Professor

Crooked Timber

Wrong for science?

Last night I was up too late (again), nursing a too-busy brain with a good dose of Internet, when the Twitterverse led me to an post by Marie-Claire Shanahan on the blog Boundary Vision, entitled, “Who is the traditional right type of person for science?”

It would appear there are some common themes in terms of (high school) students’ opinions about what makes a good scientist, i.e., they are inquisitive, creative, follow rules, employ critical thinking, and have a certain level of theoretical or technical expertise.

There are also some common misconceptions, which are brilliantly illustrated in a comic that a number of my science-student-buddies were passing around last week:

Public perception of science, and the reality (from

It seems that students often think they’re not “the right type of person” to do science because of the mistaken notion that scientists have such giant, enormous brains that they never struggle, make mistakes, or have to ask questions. For example:

[A] student, who didn’t see herself as a science student despite having good marks, told me that she based her assessment mostly on the fact that she asks the teacher a lot of questions to make sure she understands. “Real science students shouldn’t have to do that”, she said. This seems in some ways antithetical to science. Isn’t asking questions and pushing until you understand one of the defining characteristics of scientific scholarship? Some students went as far as to say that real science students don’t need to participate in science class because they should know the right answers already.

That student could have been me.

When I was in my second last year of high school, I was struggling to keep up in my senior biology class. My mark was dismal. My parents came in to chat with the teacher.  Her helpful advice? “Science isn’t really your thing.  You should try something else.”

If I hadn’t felt stupid already, I sure did now. I figured she was right: I did not, after all, really fit societal expectations of “a good science student”. My struggle turned into apathy. I stopped asking questions in class. I scraped by with a barely-passing grade.

The effects of the teachers’ words lingered. At the time of our conversation, I had been thinking about going to vet school. A year later, I was passionately anti-science, and would tell anyone who would listen that I was an “artsie”.

I applied for university programs in psychology, journalism and technical theatre. I ended up in journalism . It quickly became clear that, although I was doing well, it really wasn’t turning my crank…what on earth was I going to do?

Then, a lucky fluke: in my second semester I took an elective class called “Natural History of Ontario”. It was like a floodlight went off in my brain. HOLY CRAP, THIS STUFF IS AWESOME!  THIS IS WHAT I WANT TO DO!!! That summer I took 3 senior science and math classes, and started back at my university in the fall as a first-year biology student.

I haven’t looked back since.

Says Shanahan, in the original article on which her blog post was based:

The ability to generate new explanations, see novel connections, and navigate fluidly between representations are among only some of the aspects of scientific intelligence that have been neglected in students’ conceptualizations….In a classroom, however, [an] impoverished view of intelligence is the one that is likely rewarded. Grades are the primary measure of success in school science…

What I discovered as I successfully navigated through two science degrees, and continue to learn as I work on my third, is that many of my “messy” or “not-sciencey” characteristics are what help me learn and do good science. I “reauthored” myself as a science student, with new ideas about acceptable roles and attributes.

I ask a lot of questions – I don’t know everything, after all.

I make a lot of mistakes – but I learn from them.

I work hard to grasp new concepts – it helps me remember them and make meaningful connections to other concepts.

I do things my own way sometimes, not always following set rules – it lets me develop new approaches or ideas.

I permit myself to be distracted – my meandering, random brain often hits on great stuff that way.

As much as I’ve come to recognize the value of these traits, I am still, in some ways, as guilty as ever of believing that maybe I’m doing science all wrong, and that others are better scientists than me because they better adhere to my old notions about “real science” or “real scientists”.

Can we change the culture of science and science education to recognize and value traits other than those pervasive and persistently-held? DOES the culture change beyond high school? I would love to see this study repeated with, say, second-year university students. And again with tenured professors.


Shanahan, M., & Nieswandt, M. (2011). Science student role: Evidence of social structural norms specific to school science Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 48 (4), 367-395 DOI: 10.1002/tea.20406

Yay, I get to teach!!!

I’ve been awarded a teaching assistant position, woot!

I suspect the selection process was quite competitive; on a campus where the grad student:undergrad ratio is 1:3, and the total student population is approximately 1500, there aren’t that many TA jobs to go around.  I was a little worried that, because I’m a new kid on campus and haven’t taken any courses there, I would be overlooked.   I’m a good and experienced teacher, though…which seems to have been recognized.  I’m very thankful for this opportunity, and am totes looking forward to it (even the marking!!!)


I’ll be assisting with an introductory (second-year) zoology lab.   Yay for zoology!!!


I’m applying for Teaching Assistant jobs right now (ok, not right now, but close enough). 

I’m starting to wish (not for the first time this year) that there was one universally-accepted form that could be submitted to the endless slew of people who need me to describe why I think I am teh awesome in 2000 words or less.  Plus publications.  And relevant work experience. And relevant coursework. 

I’m getting very good at application-filling-outing, but it’s time consuming.  Thank gawd for “cut and paste”. 

That said, it’s worth filling out just one more application (ha, I wish) in order to be granted the opportunity to shape and influence young, impressionable minds.  I wonder what class I’ll get…Evolution and Phylogeny? Wildlife Conservation? Population and Community Ecology? 

*rubs hands with great gloms of geekish glee* 


Random Digression: tonight I prepared roasted garlic-thyme butter as my contribution to a company potluck breakfast tomorrow (I was put on butter duty and subsequently informed by an ex-chef coworker that it would be totes lamesauce to simply show up with a block of plain butter, which was totes my original intention).  Having succumbed to peer pressure, I now have one beautiful roll of plain butter and one of fancy herbed butter ready to be sliced into artful discs for my coworkers’ consumption.  My assessment of this “herbed butter” thing: very tasty (and pretty!), but OMG labour-intensive.  And now I have a food processor to hand-wash.  I think I will pretend I don’t see it until tomorrow morning. 

The kind of teacher I want to be

I spoke with Dr. B yesterday…I have another grant to apply for (by Friday, eek!) It looks like I’ll be spending 6-8 weeks in the Place of Moving Water this summer, setting up field studies and also spending a fair bit of time liasing with the local people, and working on training/education opportunities for students there.

This is a really, really cool (and rare) opportunity; not only will I be engaging in buggy, geeky goodness in an extremely new type of environment (for me), I’ll also get a chance to immerse myself in the socio-ecological context of my project AND pad my training/teaching resume a bit.

Teaching is just as important to me as the research itself: I love it. There are few things more rewarding than making students care about something seemingly mundane…being able to help them see and appreciate the extreme awesomeness of nature, and being able to actually connect with students on that point…to send out enthusiasm and excitement about a topic, and receive it right back. To make them want to come back for more.

When I worked at The Large Nature Museum, there were a few times where I had a person or a family trail me litterally all afternoon, simply because they got hooked on what I was telling them and they wanted MORE. (And boy oh boy in a room full of dinosaurs and with the mouth on me I can keep an audience busy for HOURS if they’re willing.)

I’ve had the privilege of being taught by a few amazing teachers…people whose enthusiasm for their subject matter was positively infectuous. One in particular…I always swore that the man could be talking about pocket lint and I’d be positively enthralled. THAT’s the kind of teacher I want to be.

I really hope that I can live up to that and inspire some young people this summer.

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