Sunday, March 22, 2009

Teaching Part 2

Jennifer Many of you who may be reading this have been or are teachers yourselves, and the rest of you are acquianted with at least one teacher, so you know pretty well the highs and lows of this noble profession. Teaching university students in Sweden is much the same... but different. See the paragraph at the end of this post for more general observations about students overall (it turned into a little bit of a rant, thus its banishment to a footnote).

So when last I left you, K. and I had suddenly realized that we were about to shoulder a little more responsibility for students in Evolutionary Genomics than we thought. Back when I didn't think it would be so much work, I and "my" PhD student Z. volunteered to give a project to the students of another class, Applied Bioinformatics. Initially five people in two groups signed up for my project in EG ("Yes, we all know your project was the most popular," someone grumped at me when I mildly whined about it—that shut me up quick), which was later reduced to three after the course instructor came to his senses; meanwhile a group of three signed on from the AB class. The EG class would be two weeks of lab work, followed by some computer work; the AB class, all computer work.

To take the last one first, the AB class was totally new for me. They were all computer students, with little interest in biology per se. Therefore I have now had the experience of being a project leader, a "big idea" person with absolutey no clue about small details, like what on earth my students did for two weeks. It's all over and I still don't know what they did, exactly—did it take them the whole time? did it take them one afternoon?—all I know is that the programs they wrote seem to work. Oh, I can't run them, but Z. can, and that's good enough for me. Lake Project AB students passed with flying colors, having learned to not tell the client more than is absolutely necessary.

Meanwhile, the EG students turned out to have not quite so much lab experience as we had been led to believe; therefore, I felt I had to sit with them a little bit more, and we had some long days indeed. They were touchingly pleased when their clones worked, and then touching distressed when all their efforts to sequence those clones failed. I dug up some old data for them, and they rallied round their last-second revised project, and I even learned a thing or two about the potential of my own project from their presentation. Lake Project EG students passed with flying colors, having learned that research is sometimes a lot of work for very little result.

And what have I learned? I have learned that, if I must teach, I'd rather teach here than UM. And that it's not so bad to foist all the heavy lifting off onto PhD students (thanks to Z. for handling the AB students, and E. for showing them some of the lab stuff that I didn't know myself).

Here's a quick recap of the relevant ways in which Swedish university is different than the American universities that I'm used to:

1. Neither parents nor students are paying for education.
2. "Grades" as such don't really exist.
3. Classes tend to be short and intense; group projects at the end seem ubiquitous.
4. Most students are a few years older than American undergraduates—many young people take a year or more off after high school to travel, or earn money, or (the men at least) serve their mandatory stint in the military.

What all these points add up to is that you have somewhat mature, quite relaxed students who are only taking a class because they want to, and who expect (and are expected) to spend all their time working on their projects. This is almost exactly the opposite of most students I've taught before, who have been twitchy, demanding, stressed out, whiny, and distrustful. In a word: pre-meds at UM.

I actually rather liked all these students, as people, and it was interesting to get to know some more Swedes. For instance, two of my male students had been done their military service with the Royal Guard, from which you can correctly infer that they are straight-backed and good looking enough to be stationed outside the palace in Stockholm in dress uniform; they figured that they are in thousands of pictures taken by tourists.

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