Thursday, January 15, 2009

Why Research Professors Need to be Able to Teach

I have reached the point as a teacher that it is sometimes painful to be a student. Not because of any requirements of the class, but because some of the professors assigned to teach graduate courses are so clearly the stereotypical brilliant scientist who can't present to save a life.

One of the professors co-teaching my only class this semester clearly falls into this category. After slowly and awkwardly dispensing with the typical course announcements, he began his lecture with a long, sometimes convoluted story about the importance of Galileo's discovery of moons orbiting Jupiter. Registration to this course may be offered through five different departments, but not one of them has anything to do with astronomy. It wasn't until we moved on to the history of understanding the function of the heart (and in case you hadn't guessed, none of the departments has any interest in anatomy, either) that he finally managed a clear statement of the point, which is that humans use metaphors to understand complex ideas. At this point, about half my attention was devoted to wondering at what point in the lecture his apparent need to cling to the whiteboard shelf for support would result in the destruction of the dry-erase artwork behind him.

What seems so terrible about this is that it isn't just teaching. In fact, most of my teaching skills have been built by my advisor's insistence on decent presentations of our research in our lab meetings, defenses, and annual department presentations. Make sure they know the point you're going to make. Repeat the point so often even those dozing in the back of the room might pick it up. Explain how every piece of data you're throwing on the screen supports that point, and explain it explicitly. Professors at an R-I like my school are research scientists first, teachers only to keep the graduate students occupied, but by dint of research presentations you'd think they could pull together a decent lecture on automatic.

In this case, I distinctly remember being impressed by this professor's research presentation a year ago. In retrospect, however, I was no doubt impressed by the research despite the presentation, not because of it. This professor has a "cool" or "sexy" research topic, and he had cool toys with him to show off as demonstrations of that research. He can impress people with his research just by the nature of his research; he doesn't have to "sell" the importance or convince people that it's interesting. While he has obviously chosen a great field to be involved in, it has done him absolutely no good in terms of his presenting skills. Sooner or later, he's going to need to sell his research, and he won't be able to. It's not just for the students' sake that research professors should still be decent teachers, it's for the professors' sake as well.

Meanwhile, I will attempt not to wince in sympathy or zone out staring at birds outside the window while he lectures.

(And he never quite leaned back far enough to smudge the dry-erase artwork. It was actually quite fancy doodling, so I doubt it will have been erased in the past 48 hours. If it's still there, I might have to start taking mental bets on how long it lasts).


Clarissa said...

When I was still a student in school, I realized that some lecturers were really bad at giving lectures. Some of them just read from their slides, some of them wrote illegibly on transparencies, some of them referred to textbooks while teaching, some spoke horrible English, and some just gave us notes to learn by heart.

And most of the time, they made me think how they became lecturers in the first place.

grad student said...

I did sit through a seminar on teaching in which the speaker was reading straight from the slides. I tend to be anti-slide anyway, and in that situation you're better off with notes than slides. But at least there's a strategy for the audience - just deliberately ignore the slides and focus on the speaker. In this class, that was impossible; the speaker was worse to watch.