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
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
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
This page was last revised 5/27/09
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