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Learning to teach

by Eva Amsen

If everything goes well (fingers crossed, knock on wood, and other unscientific anti-jinx methods) this is my last semester in the lab. I plan to write over the summer, and defend my thesis in the fall. In preparation, I am currently learning to teach.

After my PhD, I want to do two things: write about science and teach science. Research, at least wet lab research, just isn’t something I should be doing for at least some time. I might miss the bench and change my mind, but it’s been nothing but frustration to me these past eight years (MSc work included). Timers beeping, things that need to be done at very specific times in a very specific way, repeating everything a gazillion times – first because it doesn’t work, and then when it finally does work you repeat it another gazillion times for reproducibility. Gah!

I always hoped I would at some point get a lot of great data and feel better about it. I’ve had great data, but the Great Data Induced High only lasted until the next failed experiment. I’ve gotten a lot better at interpreting such situations as (sigh) “learning experiences”, but that doesn’t mean that I like these learning experiences.

What I do like very much is talking about research.

I’ve managed to give engaging seminars about above mentioned failed experiments, but of course I’d much rather talk about things that did work. So ideally, other people should do the work, and I’ll step up to explain it to people.

With that in mind, I’d like to find a non-research undergrad teaching job, but sadly I haven’t had a lot of teaching experience. There are more than a hundred graduate students in my department, and there are less than ten teaching-oriented teaching assistantships, where PhD students are learning to teach on the job. If you don’t get one of these, you can still get lucky and score one of the marking TA jobs. I have been marking fourth-year bioinformatics assignments for the past few years, and for our department that’s considered a slightly above average teaching load for graduate students. Other than volunteering at middle schools, I’ve never had a chance to stand in front of a class. I’ve also never had an opportunity where I could be learning to teach better.

Thankfully, UofT offers a chance to pad my meager teaching CV (Note: if you are a prospective employer please read “amazing” instead of “meager”.)
Woodsworth College offers the Teaching in Higher Education course for PhD students. It doesn’t appear on your transcript, but if you complete it you get a letter stating that you did so. The course contains a microteaching section where your teaching skills are evaluated, and several assignments, including the writing of your own teaching philosophy (for your teaching dossier) and writing a syllabus for a course you’d like to teach.

At the moment I’m trying to pick a topic for my microteaching session, which is one of the ways we’re learning to teach in this course. You only get ten minutes and have to teach a “concept related to your field of research”. I’ve been thinking about this for a few days, and everything I could think of was something that was related to my own research project and that would be too difficult to explain in only ten minutes to an audience of mostly non-scientists. It only occurred to me a few hours ago that I need to take my “field of research” much, MUCH broader. I need to do ten minutes on the basics of protein translation, for example. I’ve also been thinking of explaining RNA interference, but I don’t think I can do it in 10 minutes – at least not make a real lesson out of it, which is, of course, the goal of the exercise. (I can explain RNAi in ten minutes, but that’s not necessarily teaching, that’s just me talking. Teaching is if people also understand it within those ten minutes.) Then I considered bringing in some lab supplies and “doing something” (you can see how much I’ve thought that one through) but I’d have to explain the purpose, and I wouldn’t have a real lab setting, and it just wouldn’t work.

I think I’ll read some textbooks for inspiration. Any cool ideas for topics? Maybe I’ll just explain basic protein translation and show a fragment of the protein synthesis dance.

On the other hand, RNAi is very relevant to my field as well. It even has a Nobel prize to prove it, so I wouldn’t be talking about just any random thing. Maybe I can convey the message in five minutes, then I can create a ten-minute lesson. I’ll think about it.

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