Nomological Net

Stray thoughts from here and there. The occasional concern for construct validity. No more logic. Fish.


faults in the clouds of delusion

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Pedagogical perspicacity, or what?

I learned something this last week. (Yay, hooray, woopee.) Well, at least I think I did.

In contrast to most other weeks - or months, or yea, even years - that find me hidden away from sentient life making eyes at my computer, I actually had some serious human contact last week. (Sentient defined loosely, i.e., not in Turing terms. Please.) Last Monday I taught my undergrad sections and flew to Singapore the same evening. I presented some of my research there while I wasn't digging up pigs' organs and threesomes with James. I also found and under mortal peril photographed a packet of biscuits that had been tossed on the sidewalk, but that's besides the point for now. And Thursday morning I caught an early flight back, prepped on the plane, and walked into my PhD seminar after lunch. Enough excitement to keep me till Christmas, normally, but the funny thing is I have to do it all again next week.

Dramatic pause and time for contemplation. Followed by:

Gratuitous repetition section: I hate flying. Close to forty hours of my Spring Break will be spent in a tin can 30,000 feet in the air, dining on cardboard pretzels and a choice of reheated rubber or plastic. Tragic.

Smooth segue to moral of story.

So what struck me was -- these three types of sessions - undergrad, PhD, and research seminar - were similar and different in a way that I had never thought before. This insight came to me in a flash and the more I think about it, the more convinced I get. Essentially, the undergrads, who are hearing about the basics of the subject for the first time, have in common with the jury of my peers and superiors the fact that both groups require exactly the same set of reinforcements when they sit in front of me -- command, control, and closure. They want to know that I know what I'm talking about, they want the information to be dribbled out to them in digestible doses, and when the hour and a bit is up, they want to know how it all ends so they can sleep easy that night. The absence of any one of these causes great discomfort (which shows in the ratings, god forbid, and alternately in the vibes that spread after the talk and in the one-on-one meetings).

The bottom line is that these seemingly diverse populations both need to be led -- by the hand, step by step, to the safety of the right answer. And while they may question, argue, and maybe even disagree vehemently (much more likely in the latter group, especially with those at tenure give or take a few years ha ha), in the final analysis both groups need to know that I'm in charge. If I can convey that, I walk out of the room on top; satisfied.

Of course, a simpler metric is the number of people asleep when the bell rings.

The funny thing, I realised with a shock, is that it's very different for the PhD class. With them, it's about going to the bottom of the topic for the day -- it's like holding our collective breath and diving below the turbulent surface to the riverbed, and turning up stones looking for clues as to what exactly the river means and why and so what. And here I lead the search for the stones, point to and turn up as many as possible, create links between the pebbles, throw a few around, and in general create even more of a froth than before. As a result, the kids end up feeling stimulated, even vaguely exhilarated at times, but definitely no closure. I claim not to know all the answers -- sometimes I don't even claim to know the questions. And I like to employ long silences at times -- after all, some thinking is best done alone. So here I'm just the guy with the map: it's as if I'm Willy Wonka in the factory in Modern Times, and the greatest satisfaction is in seeing an idea germinate as we struggle with an implication that emerges from the dissatisfaction of a logical inconsistency.

Which of the two is better is probably a question best left to individual preferences. There's an eerie thrill to teaching undergrads at moments when they're led to an answer, and the sudden spark of comprehension appears in their eyes. There's a sense of mastery that comes from the execution of a well-planned sequence of logic, of having orchestrated the moment when it all springs into place. There's a similar sense of mastery too at the research talks, the ha! sucker feeling when insightful questions are answered by the next slide in the presentation, or when the alternative explanation is shot down by the supplementary data. But there's also a sense of gratitude when a good question is posed, a valuable insight proposed, or a relevant cite brought to light. Teaching done well is instant gratification, but the fruits of research, ever more valuable, take years to ripen. There's nothing like the thrill that comes from reading the email carrying the acceptance of an "A" hit, and the fact is that such hits are more likely to be born from the moments of free thrashing unstructure of the PhD seminar. (Never mind the fact that last week's talk led to my being propositioned to collaborate on a Bayesian-analytical model of self-control. Ooga. This is generalization time right now.)

So anyway. Now I have these insights I'm saddled with, and I'm not sure what to do with them. I guess the important thing is to try and remember to not get them mixed up. Especially this week. Jet lag, here I come.


Blogger sattva said...

really enjoyed reading this.and wish you many more moments of insight flashes :)

4/10/2006 10:08 PM  
Blogger km said...

After reading your post, I mostly felt sorry for my high school teachers, who neither enjoyed instant gratification nor any sweet fruit ripened over the years. Mr. Sharma, I am really, really, really sorry for the nonstop hilarity in the back-rows.

Does the idea that a teacher has to have the answers ever seem daunting?

4/11/2006 4:20 AM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

thanks :-) v sweet of you.
the great thing about a research job is not only that i'm just supposed to sit and think, i actually get paid for it. of course, sometimes i start thinking about the thinking :-D

oh yes, i too used to be a real pain in the butt to my teachers. reading your comment, i flashed back to mrs. imam's in-class spelling bee contest, where you had to spell your allotted word out aloud without repeating letters. my friend got the word "beginning". he spelled it. i pointed out that he'd said n thrice and g twice, so he should be disqualified under the repetition rule. the other contestants agreed. the friend protested. the class rejoiced. it all took a while to iron out.

re: the daunting bit, let's just say that before this gig i'd never ever read the textbook before class! so yes, at first it was a bit of a challenge, especially since i felt i had to have *all* bases covered. but now i've come to realise that most (usually all) of the questions that get asked are the elementary ones, or at best ones i've heard before.

i guess the really daunting bit is that the subject i teach - consumer psychology - is still very young, so many answers are not known and there are a lot of questions floating around with multiple "correct" answers (see e.g., my exchange with ghost of TJ regarding the use of fear appeals in his aids awareness ads). and first-time learners don't always appreciate such ambiguities. so (a) i have to be able to provide "closure", or at least some sort of resolution, on topics where really there isn't any, and (b) i have to know exactly what the authors of the textbook have said so that i don't go out and blatantly contradict them.

4/11/2006 9:15 AM  
Blogger MockTurtle said...

I envy you your newly found comfort with teaching. I can conduct a discussion and I can present a paper, but for the life of me I cannot take a class. The whole idea of imparting any kind of unshakable knowledge to others fills with a dread akin to the 'imposter complex' - where you doubt your qualifications for an assignment.
Maybe I can use some of your insights. Early dominance and the illusion of control sound like they may work well.

4/12/2006 1:46 AM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

yes, those are good indeed. i also find it very useful to adapt the US model, i.e., think of it not as teaching but as entertainment. it's not about "Transferring Knowledge and WIsdom in the pursuit of Moulding Future Generations", it's about putting on a good show (without compromising the material, of course). after all, people learn best when they're having fun, right? that and the night before the exam.

4/12/2006 1:21 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home