Sunday, February 15, 2009

Teaching Part 1

Jennifer One of the nice things about being a post-doc is that one doesn't have to teach. One of the downsides is that it's easy to underestimate how much research can get done in a given time, and it seems like there is always too much to do. So when my boss asked me at lunch last last week, "Do you think that part of your project would be suitable for a class project, for students of evolutionary genomics class?" I thought about it for a second, then said "Sure! They could test these new primers I made, that would be useful," and I went on to enthusiastically describe various parts of my project that could be easily accomplished by a student in two weeks. See, I had thought that this would be a class with a laboratory already in place, and that I could just turn over the ingredients, maybe check in on them once or twice, and then get back the data they had gathered for me. What a deal!

The first warning that it might not be quite as simple as that came a couple days later, when fellow post-doc K. and I were carbon copied on an email that was sent to the whole class, and we noticed that we were listed as project leaders. Our projects were described with nothing more than titles (mine was "Nucleotide diversity in Swedish lakes"). "Project leaders?" I asked K. "What does that mean, exactly?" Don't worry about it, probably no one will choose our projects anyway, K. said, as there were other projects to choose from as well. Two days later K. asked me whether I had heard anything from the course leader A., and I said no, and since she hadn't either, we decided maybe we ought to go to him and find out what was going on. So we did... to find out that we would be entirely in charge of the students. Full time. That's eight hours a day, five days a week, for two weeks. Furthermore, if there is lab work, they will be doing it in our lab, not in a class lab.

Having never taught Swedish students, I pressed K. for more details about what to expect. I have gotten the feeling that students here are somewhat different: they tend to be more mature, and the fact that no people don't go to college unless or until they really want to means that they may be a little more self-motivated than an average undergrad at, say, some large American state university. "Well, it just depends," she said. "Maybe we can give them some options, either for lab work or for computer work, and then they'll be doing what they want. I wouldn't worry about it too much." (Officemate S. was a little more pessimistic, and suggested that I should take a project that would take me an afternoon, and that that should keep some students plenty busy for two weeks.)

And then the next day, the emails started coming in. I got an email from a student who wanted to work on my project and specified that he wanted to do something "with meaningful output." I was then carbon copied on an email to the course supervisor by another student who was asking to join another group of two who wanted to work on my project. Then the first student wanted to know if it would be okay if he had a partner too. I haven't even prepared the short spiel to tell the class what my project is about, and now I have five of them!

K. came by Friday at the end of the work day. "Two students have chosen my project," she said worriedly. "Yes, I have some too," I said. "And I think they want to work in the lab." "So do mine," said K. I laughed a little, and reminded her that she had told me repeatedly not to worry about it. "Yes, but I didn't think anyone would choose them," she said.

So now we're both a little worried, K. and I. With little advance preparation and no particular plans, we have the whole class. How will we all fit in the lab? Are Swedish students different than American students? Will they manage to produce any "meaningful output"? I don't know the answer to any of these questions. A whole new adventure awaits me!

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