Teaching Myself to Teach

A confession. When I was an undergraduate, I really didn’t go to classes as much as I should have. In particular, I didn’t go to many of my physics and math classes. Why? Mostly because these were the classes where I had the least problem picking up the material and my own self-motivation to learn the material on my own was almost always enough to carry me through the class. So the classes I attended the most were my humanities classes (to get that valuable B.S. in literature 😉 ) and my elective scientific courses, particularly the courses I took in computational neural science. Now that I’ve started teaching my own class, I wonder how much my own teaching suffers because of my past habits skipping class?
One thing I’ve noticed is that I have a hard time lecturing around a textbook. I have this insane desire to explain the subject material in my own words, and following a textbook closely makes me feel like I am not much more than a glorified parrot. I think, perhaps, this just has to do with my own proximity to the subject matter I’m teaching, quantum computing. Teaching about a subject which is not your own field of research in some ways seems like it would be easier, because you feel less of a desire to make sure you get it just right.
I am also fighting, in my own teaching, the three subject structure which was prevalent at Caltech. The three subject structure was the expectation that a course would involve lectures on one part of the subject, homeworks on another, and tests on a third part. Of course there was always some overlap, but there was also a lot of “thrown them into the fire” homeworks and tests. I can’t count the number of times I realized halfway through a test, “Oh, so this is what that means!” Fine for self-motivated self-learners, but not the best for everyone else.
Anyway, I think I’m slowly beginning to learn to teach. The first lecture for the course, I, uh, how to put this nicely, well I totally misjudge the appropriate difficulty level I should have been shooting for in the classs. In particular, I’m teaching the course to professional master’s students in computer science, some of whom have been out of school for a few years, and so, while I may want to teach them quantum theory in one lecture, this just is not very realistic! So starting in lecture two, we slowed down the pace quite a bit. Now entering into the fifth lecture, we’re beginning to get to things which I would consider truely quantum computing subjects. Now the challenge will be, again, to restrain myself from running rampshot through this material. Certainly there last homework was significantly harder than their first two, so I’m really trying to slow the pace as we enter the really cools stuff in quantum computing. Interestingly, slowing down has resulted in, I think, teaching the material in a careful manner, but has also kept me from teaching the big picture as effectively as possible. Mixing these two styles, big picture and instruction on the details, is something I’m working on.
Well, back to working on my lecture and the next homework set!

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5 Responses to Teaching Myself to Teach

  1. NL says:

    I think referring to Caltech’s undergrad pedagogy as anything but (at best) nonstandard or (at worst) pathological is unproductive…which is to say, good luck escaping its influence.
    Following a textbook can be good, if the book is good- the lecture can be used to reinforce the general structure, while filling in some blanks. My 3 versions of E&M, frex, were like this- centered on one book (Purcell, Griffiths, Jackson) but without any feeling of glorifed parrotry.
    (parrotry?)

  2. Dave Bacon says:

    Actually I would disagree with the statement that the teaching method is pathological. I certainly agree that it is not for everyone, nor does it work for the majority of students. But it did work for me, and I don’t think I would have been happy being taught in a different manner. And I also know that it did work for a small group of my fellow undergraduates. I can’t speak for them, but I know they exist, and they too probably wouldn’t have enjoyed being taught in a different manner. In my case, I think the reason it worked was that I have almost always taught myself science: I taught myself calculus and physics in high school and so continuing to teach myself in college wasn’t really much of an issue. So you could ask, well maybe I would have been fine in any teaching setting. But I don’t think this is true. For someone like me, a good course was one in which I was pressed to my limits. If it was too easy, it wasn’t very interesting. And Caltechs “drink from a firehose” method of teaching was perfect for pressing me to my limits. What would have been even better for me is if the classes were structured similarly, but the teachers were, how shall I put this, simply better communicators. The classes that I did attend at Caltech were certainly ones where the teachers were great communicators…and even though I thought I could learn the material on my own, their presentation made me desire to come back and see things from their perspective.
    That being said, I agree that disentangling myself from this method is not easy. I certainly know that it is a method which only works for the smallest minority of students. So I aim for teaching in the more conventional sense. However, I’m sure that a part of me will always want to turn that firehose up a notch…just to give those really good students a glimpse of challenge. And then I’ll quickly turn the water down and return to “good” teaching.

  3. Anandi says:

    Clearly Dave, you were the ideal Caltech student. I envy you giant brain. (And I’m not even being sarcastic here!)
    In 75% of the lectures I attended at Caltech, I copied down a bunch of notes that didn’t make any sense at the time, and unsuccessfully tried to make sense of them later. The fact that the textbook covered the material in a totally different (and sometimes easier) way really didn’t help on the homework or the exams.
    I thought this was the way it was supposed to work until I attended classes at UW. It’s amazing to be in class, understand what’s going on, and be able to ask *intelligent questions*, even. And to find that the homework and tests actually reinforce or expand my knowledge while not making me feel like a complete idiot.
    On the other hand, the pace of a few of the UW classes I’ve taken is slow enough to be painful – I guess that’s the tradeoff you make for not drinking from the firehose.
    I guess I’m that “average” student. I appreciate you’re modifying your teaching style to your class without totally selling yourself out 🙂

  4. Suz says:

    Did you ever take Ph2a or b or c (can’t remember which) with Ricardo Gomez (who has sadly passed away)? I remember most the way he drew his zetas. For the longest time I thought there was a Greek letter called “squiggly” and he always looked like he was jumping up and down excitedly when he drew them.
    Er, I guess this has nothing to do with your post, except it reminded me of some of the things that happened in lecture.
    Anyway, I hadn’t recalled the three-part method, but now that you mention it, it sort of makes sense. Maybe that’s why one term in quantum, the average score on the weekly quiz was 1.5 out of 10, with the mode being 0. And I was super smart because I got a 3. Woohoo!

  5. Not until you stated it did I realize the 3 fold way of teaching was intentional. My biggest difficulty at Tech was that by the time I was frosh, it had been three years since I took Calculus, but I did well on the physics placement test. So I was in MA 0.9 and the advance Ph1 section. Not that it is part of your Blog, but I wish I had taken advantage of research with faculty.

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