Friday, September 7, 2007

Practice What You Preach

Not just the first song on the 1989 Testament album of the same name.

Yesterday, I sat through yet another all-day, off-campus seminar otherwise known as my one year mandatory pedagogic training for new faculty members. As always for mandatory programs, the level of motivation is suboptimal among the participants. Still, many of us come to the seminars in the somewhat naïve belief that we'll learn something useful. Me - I still carry a small flicker of hope of learning something I'll be able to use in a teaching situation before the course is over, but as the end is nearing, I feel that I'm getting beyond the point where optimism can be justified. The following are some of the frustrations we went through on yesterday's seminar. Not just that, but these are points we confronted the "teachers" with in the form of constructive criticism, so it's not just something we talk about behind their backs - we confront/provide them with ample feedback after each session. So here we go:

  • The theme for the day was teaching small groups, group building, group dynamics, and the usual sermon about trying out alternatives to traditional blackboard or powerpoint lectures. How was this carried out, you might ask? While we were split up into groups of six on small tables throughout the entire day, all the teaching was done by the teachers reciting the text from black text bullet points on plain white background slides, in 45-90 minutes uninterrupted sessions. So much for alternative ways of communicating information, and never mind their pet theories of mixing it up every 15 minutes or so. When asked if it wouldn't be a better idea to actually put one of the methods - such as problem-based learning - into practice, they got real defensive and said that it wasn't easy to make a course like this for participants from all walks of academia. Epic dealing with criticism.
  • One teacher enthusiastically condones personality tests, and describes how people who have taken personality tests can be split into two categories - those who recognize themselves from the resulting profile, and those who don't. The former category typically consists of people who have taken self-development courses, at least according to teach'. The second category consists of people who lack insight into their own personality. I personally did a double take when I heard this, because it's the equivalent of saying that if you don't agree with the results of a personality test - which is a statistical model with inherent assumptions and limitations - then you're clueless, 'cause the model can't be wrong. I'd hate to be on a road trip with this guy. If he practices what he preaches, then he'd break out a shovel every time the terrain doesn't match the map.
  • When discussing an evaluation of the pedagogical program based on feedback from last year's class, approximately 60% answered that certain objectives were not clearly communicated, and that some parts did not provide any useful information. The teacher presenting this said that she realized that we couldn't be held responsible for this, and that she certainly hoped WE'D do better than the other class. Wow - just....WOW. So if more than half of the students don't feel that they've been given an adequate description of the objectives, and that they don't feel that they learned anything from some sections of the course, the students are to blaim. That's 100%, grade A, moneyback guaran-damn-teed male bovine feces. I'd like to see what'd happen if I tried this explanation for bad student evaluations. Also, I should try this as response to bad peer-review. "Dear Editor. We would like to point out that the primary reason for which reviewer #666 states that our manuscript is 'insubstantiated and premature speculative work compiled into a poorly written manuscript' is that said reviewer is a moron without the mental faculties to comprehend and drink fully of the elegant argument and divine dataset contained in our present work."
  • Two of the participants - who happened to be seated at the same table as me - teach group dynamics and formation mechanisms at and above MSc level. Whenever they would speak up and question some of the topics presented within their areas of expertise, their input was summarily dismissed or ignored.

The funny thing is that I'm still optimistic about the last elective module, and I hope to get some useful info from it.


Anders said...

You should tape some of those sessions and send to Comedy Central. Or at least write a best of book from the lessons.

But apart from the fact that you waste your time, the worst thing is that the subject is potentially very intersting. I love to get a few pratical tips on how to improve communication to a group of people. Be it in a teaching or presentation situation. Especially complex scientific material.

Wilhelm said...

Oh yeah - absolutely. That's the worst part of it. Obviously one has a lot to learn about all the subjects they teach, yet for some reason they fail miserably in imparting knowledge on the participants. I'd love to say that I've picked up much knowledge about constructing a functional group, use different educational tools or that I now know better ways of conducting a teacher-student advisory session, but I don't. I'm massively disappointed because I was reasonably sure that I'd learn plenty of useful things, or at least different ways of thinking about the learning process.

Perhaps even worse is the fact that I actually try to learn from this course, and continuously try to take in the concepts they introduce. I actively participate, yet fail to gain any new insights.

Ok - that was potentially a self-owning of gargantuan proportions, but I think you knkw what I mean...

Anders said...

But you did learn that blue colors make you sad and yellow makes you happy, didn't you?* You gotta be able to use that for something?

*Unless you're from a different culture. Then all bets are off!

Wilhelm said...

Was it yellow that makes one happy? Green is for greedy, blue is for sad, red is for enraged - what is orange and pink for?

Anders said...

Pink are for girly guitars*, orange are for energetic. What is pastel for? And brown? And purple?

*Daphne blue also works fine...

Wilhelm said...

Daphne blue doesn't sound so manly, does it?

Could'a been a really crappy mid-90's girl band

Anders said...

Daphne Blue also sounds like a female, soft-blues band as well.