Teaching philosophy

Teaching philosophy? I teach biology. Now I've gotta teach philosophy? Oh well, here goes: "I think I think, therefore I think I am."

"A university is a community of scholars dedicated to the acquisition and dissemination of knowledge." I gather together these thoughts based on 119 semesters of teaching over the last 40 years. Very few people with that much teaching have 300 publications and presentations. The perspective I bring to bear on my teaching is one of familiarity way beyond the textbook. That is what distinguishes a university from a small teaching college.

My paramount concern is with content. There is a body of material in each of the courses that I teach that students must learn to be conversant and intelligent. Currently, there is a lot of emphasis on critical thinking. At the undergraduate level, this led to "problem-based learning" (PBL, later "inquiry based learning"). Example (with a "Starkastic" twist) - "What molecule would you use to code the hereditary information? Hint - It begins with a D." Point being, you need to have some information to be able to think about it. My attitude, very traditional (old fashioned) - "Here's what you have to know."

I taught signal transduction 6 times, and this file cabinet drawer represents the advanced content for such a graduate course. In order to reduce the material to just this one drawer, I needed to know the material and study many more papers to decide which were relevant and which were understandable. The difficulty in teaching such an advanced course is keeping it up to date. That requires an intellectual career, a lot of reading, and a huge turnover in the selected material on a yearly basis. Since about 2000, the required intellectual maintence has been eroded to irreparable levels.

I taught Introductory biology 18 times from 1980 - 2008. The major difficulty was the high enrollment and this Introductory biology spread sheet shows the chore of calculating grades. (Preventing cheating is also a major job.) Here is my 2003 Course syllabus for second semester majors' biology. If you had me for first and second semester, you had every chapter in the best book available (Campbell [and Reece]). If you took any other course in biology, you were introduced to the material in my course. If it was considered biology, and you had no further course work, you knew something about the material if you learned what I taught you. "The rest of your biology education is to actually learn what I exposed you to." One time, I was giving an oral exam to a graduating senior. "I see from your list that you took Plants and Fungi, so here's my question..." The answer was prefaced by "Everything covered in that course, I had already learned in your course."

Since 2007, I have taught a one semester course, the only biology requirement, for entering freshmen in physical therapy, occupational therapy, nutrition and dietetics, and athletic training. The special challenge here comes from these two differing comments (from 2008 teacher evaluations) "I had already taken an AP Biology Class before this, so there was not really any new material for me, but it was a good review and Stark was a great teacher." on the one hand versus "We covered large amounts of material in very short periods of time so at times it was a lot of material to learn and study." What a juggling act to try to bring everyone to the same page! I designed a course targeted to these students (with a substantial physiology coverage). Yet, since it is their only semester of biology, it is essential that evolution and genetics be part of the curriculum. Of course, these topics cannot be approached without the requisite coverage of scientific method, chemistry and cell biology.

In terms of pedagogy, I always like to put the lecture information in the context of something most students already know, perhaps something that is particularly relevant from current affairs. This gives a springboard for me to make my points. Whenever possible, I tell students where they have learned something about the topic earlier in the course. Also, I like to presage when a topic will be related in future lectures. This was, of course, impossible in the first few years of teaching a course because I needed to be trippingly fluent with the entire course content to do that. I feel it is important to have teachers who have the course under their belts. One time I was asked to teach 1/3 of the intro course, the part in my specialty. I replied. "I'll teach the whole course, but not 1/3 of it." I say shamelessly to any of my colleagues, "I can teach your specialty in my course better than you can teach your specialty in my course." The reason is that I know what they already had and what they will have. Team teaching freshmen is a disaster.

I think I really have my finger on the pulse of the undergraduate. It is amazing how little the typical entering freshman knows. Sometimes, to convey the main point, I say "It's the truth and nothing but the truth, but maybe not the whole truth." The material available these days, texts and artwork, are so much better than what we had to learn from! I compliment such pedagogy in my classes frequently. One time, about half way through the semester, a student timidly asked, "What is that word you keep using, 'pedagogy?'" and I replied "My goodness, I hope you don't think its anything illegal."

It is also amazing how few things you think students know that they actually know. They sure cannot fill in the blanks when they grow up in the multiple choice world necessitated by the cattle drive science courses. I hang out with the students who do research in my lab. I pride myself in the Socratic method in that venue (and we all know what happened to Socrates, he ate hemlock). "What are you up to in cell (or biochem or physio)? Then here's a question for you... How can they cover (whatever) without you learning (whatever)? Shame on your professors if they haven't taught you (whatever) - you have a right to demand your money back."

No disrespect, but half of my faculty colleagues in my present department and in my department at my last job would not be appropriate for freshman or sophomore teaching. In seminars and in classes, I've seen colleagues that talk at a level that is beyond me, yet close enough that I can recognize what I would need to know to understand them. Through discussions, I see that many faculty are unaware of what freshmen and sophomores do not know yet. Maybe this is the difference: I go for bredth in a world where depth is more widely appreciated. "Critical thinking" is the euphemism for depth used by professors whose students paste one after another picture from a paper into a PowerPoint show for their seminar and grade without knowing any of the background that would put the paper they are reviewing into context.

Let me preface this paragraph with the following student evaluation quotation (Biology 582, "Graduate seminar in cell and molecular regulation" Fall, 1999): "I was very glad that the class was encouraged to use power point. It is now a powerful tool that I will always be able to use." Hardly anybody was using PowerPoint in 1999, and my job was all the more innovative because of hardware, software and projection limitations in 1999. By 2005, PowerPoint had become a religion at my college. My feeling: If this is the book of knowledge, then this is the book of knowledge on PowerPoint slides. PowerPoint fragments the lecture outline and is made available to students in memory-consuming pdf files that cannot be imported for note taking. Many professors give text figures to students on web-CT, rationalizing questionable copyright infringement since only their students can subscribe. As a result, many students do not read the book and some do not buy it. If slides are elaborate enough, students do not uncross their arms to take notes. Technology is like drugs: we must consider "use," "misuse" and "abuse."

My outlines are easily imported into any word processor. My outlines are just that - outlines; only a student can take notes. I feel there is no substitute to going to lecture, taking notes, and studying those notes. Writing notes - that is the original interactive learning. While I am still able, my courses are on the world wide web.

I was fortunate in my last years at University of Missouri and my first years here at Saint Louis University to have the most brilliant computer oriented undergraduate students (whiz kids) working for me. With that momentum, I started to develop a web site to exhibit my research in 1996 and started to put courses on the web in 1997. Server access was the determining factor in those early days, and that allowed growth by acretion ever since. Using my synapse lecture in my physiology course as an example, I can include literature hyperlinks and test questions. Using my biome lecture in my intro course as an example, I can include a scholarly quotation. My outlines (example signal transduction Course) have a novel idea, the Cumulative outline. Any browser can be used to search, as an index is used, for topics covered during the entire semester. "Some assembly required" is exemplefied by my Physiology lab syllabus where dates and announcements need to be added. A lifetime of my research lab techniques and my personal scholarship are dovetailed into my teaching - there are so many examples that I use the next paragraph to itemize a sample. In summary, I make my web site a resource of pedagogy and an intellectual archive beyond a mere collection of course outlines.

When I was at the University of Missouri - Columbia, there was an item on the student evaluation questionaire something like: "The professor incorporates his own research into his lectures - strongly agree ... strongly disagree." It seemed to me that "strongly disagree" might usually be good for introductory courses and that "strongly agree" was good for advanced courses. With a lifetime as a citizen in "a community of scholars dedicated to the acquisition and dissemination of knowledge," I can interlace so many useful tutorials at so many levels. Give students a flavor for electron microscopy in the cell lecture of first semester introductory biology. Show students protein techniques in the biotech lecture for first semester introductory biology. Rah, rah, sis-boom-bah be true to your biome (Eastern deciduous biome, second semester introductory biology) - show them wild flowers. How do male and female holly flowers look different in the second semester introductory plant reproduction and development lecture. How is electrophysiology done in the lab (neuroscience course). Many more examples. In some cases, this scholarship is a byproduct of the research career, in others it is a combination of hobby and teaching.

Wow has the climate changed. In the 1970's, when I was at Hopkins, premeds were called 'throats (cut throats). Now, when students (even sophomores) are a little annoyed, they complain to the chair, the dean, and the president. And these administrators listen! Students have a feeling of entitlement. I think of that scene in "Meet the Fockers" where the proud parents are showing the trophy room with a three foot high trophy for eighth place in miniature golf in fourth grade. Course evaluations and assessments (see below) come, in part, from people with an "agenda'" ones who are not doing well and blame the professor.

A variety of factors, in the corporate mentality of today's universities, require us to put Objectives, Assessment, Honesty, Grade scale etc. into a syllabus, (Time was when a syllabus was a list of topics and reading assignments (examples: animal behavior, cell biology). Using my Neuro course as an example, this clutter can be placed on hyperlinks so that the course content can be highlighted instead. Assessment has been a real distraction to scholarship. We are ordered to obtain information for each course, and the examples of questions given to us are like: "Did you develop a capacity for understanding and compassion?" I have done assessments honestly and dutifully for the 25 courses I have taught from Fall 2000 to Fall 2008, and my posting makes my assessment reports uniquely available. (I have hardly ever received any indication that anybody has read any of them.)

This page was last revised 5/27/09

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