Thursday, May 10, 2012

Guest Post: Kate Follette on Encouraging Graduate Students to be Good Teachers and Better Communicators

Kate Follette is a graduate student at Steward Observatory and an adjunct instructor at Pima Community College in Tucson, Arizona. Her scientific research focuses on planet formation in circumstellar disks, and she is also engaged in educational research on mitigating quantitative illiteracy through introductory science courses for non-majors.

Encouraging Graduate Students to be Good Teachers and Better Communicators

I had an interesting discussion recently with a well-respected senior scientist about the benefits of pedagogical and communication training for graduate students. This was in connection with a proposal to start a graduate course on that topic. I mentioned that I was surprised that such a course was not already offered and, more than that, required as part of our degree program. This wasn’t an intentionally radical statement. In fact, the benefits of such a program seemed clear and abundant to me, so I was surprised at how our conversation progressed.

He countered immediately with an argument that I’ve heard before – “not all graduate students will be required to teach in their future careers”. This one didn’t faze me too much, and I already had a practiced response.

I told him that this was probably true, but that pedagogical skills are essentially communication skills. The majority of us do have to teach in some capacity during our careers, but more than that, virtually all of us have to give public lectures, write grants, and interact with people who want to hear about what we do, and this kind of training can make us better at those as well.

In fact, as astronomers, this may be more important for us than your average scientist. People think that what we do is cool. Before we even open our mouths, they already want to know more. In this sense, we are leaps and bounds ahead of many scientists in our ability to reach the public and convince them that science is a worthy human endeavor – worthy of their tax dollars, support and attention.

This big-picture argument didn’t win him over, however, so I decided to use a real-world example instead (always a good pedagogical practice). I told him that I’d been required to take 3 courses on extragalactic phenomena in order to complete my astronomy degree, but will probably never use any of that knowledge in my science. How was this any different? What harm could it possibly do to give all graduate students some pedagogical training?

Now before you extragalactic astronomers get up in arms about my argument, let me clarify, as I did to him, that I am not arguing that those classes weren’t beneficial to me. Since taking them, I’ve been able to fold in much more interesting material on modern cosmology and big unanswered questions into my general astronomy courses. I’m better able to follow journal clubs and colloquia outside of my field and, perhaps even more importantly, when the guy sitting next to me on the plane asks “so what is a black hole anyway?” I don’t have to make something up.

Broad education makes us all better at the “other” things we do. None of us sit in front of our computer reducing data day in and day out. Interacting with students, the public, journalists and even other scientists is part of our job. Not only do most of us shy away from these responsibilities as a “waste of our time”, on the whole we are also absolutely terrible at them.

How many truly awful talks have you endured by monkeying with your smartphone (Yes! I mean you, not your students!)? How many of you have had a student tell you they’re “not a science person”? Have you ever heard one say they’re “not a reading person”? How many of you have been asked questions about ancient aliens building the pyramids or the upcoming 2012 apocalypse and dismissed them out of hand?

We as scientists bear the brunt of the responsibility for creating a scientifically illiterate public. That’s right – it’s our own fault that the NSF and NASA don’t have more popular support, that the general public thinks that we spend our time locked in an ivory tower thinking about things that are not at all relevant to them, that your average person doesn’t know the difference between good science and pseudoscience. We don’t bother to develop the skills to tell them what we do effectively because it might cut into our time to do science. How many generations will go by then until speciation occurs and the “scientist” becomes a completely marginalized entity? How long until we go extinct?

Rather than give you the entire blow-by-blow of the argument (which is what our conversation devolved to), let me just say that I pulled out all of my best stuff, but was still unable to convince my opponent. I’ve been dwelling on this interaction for weeks now, and it still has that bitter aftertaste of a political debate in which you just can’t understand where the other side could possibly be coming from.

So I’m going to put the onus on you, WIA blog readers, to tell me - am I wrong here? Is this an important issue? How important? Would you still support it if it meant realigning our priorities and requirements?

I’ll leave you with a radical thought - what if graduate students spent a little less time on science during their graduate career and a little more time on learning to communicate it? Would such a compromise make them better or worse prepared for their future career?