My First Conference is over, after four hectic days of commuting, socializing, eating out - and, of course, attending symposia and a little networking. This week we'll step through some of the highlights of the conference, starting with the pre-conference Teaching Institute.
The teaching institute was first of all interesting from both the teaching and research perspective. The first plenary talk was on the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning ("SOTL"), and can be summed as follows: 1) At best, results on teaching methods from a lab setting can only create a hypothesis for classroom teaching, not a definitive guide for practice; 2) Pedagogy research needs to take into account the individual differences of teachers and students, because claims about the evil/effectiveness of PowerPoint and other teaching tools depend entirely on the teacher's teaching style.
The second plenary talk focused on the outcomes of our teaching, pointing out that one of the reasons that public policy makers are so resistant to listening to scientific study (such as in NPR's report about banning phthalates in toys despite scientific evidence that they aren't harmful) is that we aren't teaching science that well. We need to not just teach the facts we learn from science, but how we know, how what we know changes with new evidence, and what we do not know yet. Another talk on this topic pointed out that we often teach using nothing but confirmatory evidence, which is completely contrary to scientific thinking.
Beyond giving me some cachet in my claims to be a dedicated teacher, and ideas for future teaching, it was an excellent introduction to the conference. A tiny fraction of conference attendees were there - only about 170, according to the organizer - and I was able to ease into the crowds, get practice on a poster session, and chat with people. And, the people I spoke with were ridiculously nice and helpful. The round-table leader I ate lunch with started offering suggestions on how I could present myself when applying for jobs, and one poster presenter was willing to talk about teaching at liberal arts colleges and was just incredibly enthusiastic in wishing me well on my upcoming job search and dissertation. Those informal experiences alone would have been worth the extra registration fee.