William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Statement Of Teaching Philosophy

Regular readers will know that I have been searching for (continuous) employment as a teacher. Most colleges and universities ask applicants to supply “a statement of teaching philosophy”, while a few larger entities ask for equivalent words about research. It is telling that major institutions do not often ask about teaching.

My research statement begins by admitting that the best discoveries originate in a classroom: having to explain the complex simply sharpens the mind. Page Smith, from his Killing the Spirit: Higher Education in America, says

It is my contention that the best research and the only research that should be expected of university professors is wide and informed reading in their fields and in related fields. The best teachers are almost invariably the most widely informed, those with the greatest range of interests and the most cultivated minds. That is real research, and that, and that alone, enhances teaching.

A professor with interests outside narrowly prescribed precincts can be viewed with suspicion because of the concern that his research will suffer (meaning his output of scarcely or never-read papers will drop), and if his paper count drops, the chance of his grants being funded decreases, and if his grants aren’t funded, well, I suppose he’d have to rely for his salary on student tuition, an increasingly foreign concept.

There is the feeling that in the rush towards research, the primary purpose of the college professor—to profess—has been forgotten. That isn’t true. Teaching is always proclaimed to be important. But careful observers notice that praise of teaching is in inverse proportion to the honor in which it is held. Jacques Barzun said that teaching was not a lost art but that “the regard for it is a lost tradition.”

You should hear the joy in a professor’s voice when he describes how he reduced his teaching “load.” The number of courses one must endure is always a competitive topic of conversation whenever two or more professors meet. The winner is he who teaches least.

What, then, to teach? Narrowness in instruction is sometimes to be desired. If the student has signed up for “Rebuilding the Small-Block Mopar”1, he expects and should receive specific and detailed recipe-like lessons in hot-tanking intake manifolds and the use of dial bore gages, lectures which should not include (say) discursions on how the automobile changed the South African economy under apartheid. Conversely, students in Statistics 101 should not be surprised to hear about the consequences of biased measurements of cylinder bore tapers and how this influences the joys of driving a ’64 Barracuda.

Yet many modern students and their parents will find themselves in agreement with Locke:

Can there be anything more ridiculous than that a father should waste his own money, and his son’s time, in setting him to learn the Roman language, when at the same time he designs him for a trade, wherein he, having no use of Latin, fails not to forget that little which he brought from school, and which ’tis ten to one he abhors for the ill-usage it procured him?

The dangers of treating the university as a jobs training center are illustrated by Richard Feynman and his tour of a Brazilian physics department. The students had memorized the technical details of light polarization but hadn’t the ingenuity to recognize polarized light when they saw it. About an obscure fact the students were able to regurgitate, Feynman said, “Even now, I have to think about it; they knew it cold! They even knew the tangent of the angle equals the index!” The “students had memorized everything, but they didn’t know what anything meant.”

Cardinal Newman reminded us that a university is “not a factory, or a mint, or a treadmill.” Instead, it should be a place

by which the intellect, instead of being formed or sacrificed to some particular or accidental purpose, some specific trade of profession, or study of science, is disciplined for its own sake, for the perception of its own proper object, and for its own highest culture.

John Amos Comenius (1592-1670) beat Newman to it when he said the three aims of education are, “Erudition which aims at man’s reason, moral education which aims at man’s character and independence, and piety which aims at his understanding of God”

So much for the general. As to specific methods, Aldous Huxley (I learnt this from Kenneth Minogue) railed, even a century ago, that lectures “are as much an anachronism as bad drains or tallow candles” and that it was “high time they were got rid of.” Minogue agrees that “as a device for transmitting information” they are “absurdly inefficient.”

Page Smith quotes Patricia Nelson Limerick’s observation that “lecturing is an unnatural act, an act for which providence did not design humans.” Smith continues:

The strange, almost incomprehensible fact is that many professors, just as they feel obliged to write dully, believe that they should lecture dully. To show enthusiasm is to risk appearing unscientific, unobjective; it is to appeal to the students’ emotions rather than their intellect.

Lectures cannot be avoided entirely, but they should be minimized. Lectures should be fluid: the destination is key but the exact path to it should be varied to suit the time and place. The Socratic method, an earnest, exploring, back-and-forth between professor and students is often ideal.

This is particularly so in statistics. Textbook lessons never “stick.” Memorizing formula and endless pedantic exercises are a positive menace and a bar to clear understanding and are the reason students hate statistics.

To counter this, I have students provide their own examples. Explaining uncertainty (the raison d’être of statistics) can only be done when the student knows enough about a subject to know where and how over-confidence arises. Canned examples fail at this because they appear as neat little packages, which when opened reveal pretty little results. Nothing ever goes wrong in textbooks, while in real life it always does.

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1I recommend highly the seminal work on this subject by Don Taylor and Larry Hofer.

23 Comments

  1. “department loose prestige”

    Or maybe they even *lose* prestige.

    Sorry, pet peeve.

  2. Briggs

    1 March 2012 at 1:40 pm

    Big Mike,

    Now how did that get there.

  3. @Briggs: Surely placed there by your enemies.

  4. Who do you think was more valuable to his students and instution, Jearl Walker or some hopeless pedant who demands that his students reproduce the periodic table of the elements from memory?
    http://www.csuohio.edu/sciences/dept/physics/physicsweb/walker/resume_J.Walker_2008.pdf

    Or Lawrence Krauss
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Physics_of_Star_Trek

    Jearl Walker had non-students attend his lectures just to see the show. Krauss was featured when parents and prospective students visited campus. Everyone learned.

  5. I know little of formal education other than how badly it failed me (or perhaps more correctly how we failed each other).

    What I do know, after 12 years of public-school education and 2 University degrees, is that there are those of us for whom lectures are a complete waste of time. I think, in 7 years of post-secondary education, I may have managed to take all of 3 or 4 pages of notes, if the doodles were to be expunged.

    Contrived labs were even more profoundly useless.

    Some number of years back, in an effort to wring value out of a long commute by bus, I picked up a well-known, self-contained text on real and complex analysis. Analysis mystified me all those years prior, when I ‘studied’ it in my sophomore year. While this classic text was very well written, and I actually learned quite a bit by reading it, what struck me most was the mechanical theorem/proof style and complete lack of motivation for any of the results — much as my college analysis (and other) courses were presented.

    That I would be impressed by this text’s approach may well have been testament to my mathematical immaturity, but it did make me realize that one of the key components in maintaining interest in learning was the big issue of *motivation*. On the one hand, I was motivated to learn the material, but on the other hand, the issue of “who cares” about a particular theorem was left to the reader as an exercise — perhaps deliberately in this case.

    For young minds, I believe tactical-level motivation is a key factor. Were I a college lecturer, I would spend the lecture time developing a problem, and the interest of the students in the problem, then ask them to go away and be prepared to present their solutions (of course, giving them guidance on what was expected in the solutions, and providing hints as to where they may look for suitable examples or threads of knowledge that could help). These days, a lot of the background discussion on methods could be conducted electronically.

    Whether or not that could actually work, I suppose, would depend on the dynamic between the professor and the students, but, in my mind at least, would be a very much better way of teaching than wasting my time standing in front of a bunch of glassy-eyed kids writing equations on the whiteboard.

  6. Big Mike … the most valuable class I ever took (in retrospect) was differential equations. Instead of simply learning theory, we applied everything to physical systems — circuits, automobile suspensions, fluid distribution systems etc.

    Evening class, part time teacher (PhD) who didn’t need the work. He just loved teaching.

  7. @Speed: “He just loved teaching.”

    Very often the make-or-break factor, in my experience. Loving teaching isn’t necessarily a predictor of success, but hating it is a pretty good predictor of failure.

  8. Eric Anderson

    1 March 2012 at 3:21 pm

    “. . . lectures “are as much an anachronism as bad drains or tallow candles” and that it was “high time they were got rid of.” Minogue agrees that “as a device for transmitting information” they are “absurdly inefficient.””

    I have heard many a good lecture in my time, given one-time on an isolated topic, but as a regular tool for teaching a semester-long course, I would agree.

    I had the wonderful opportunity of teaching higher-level language classes for a semester in Moscow, Russia at a prestigious university back during the last Soviet days. I found most of the students to be very bright, articulate and eager to learn. I was floored, however, when I attended a class (I think it was history or classics?) taught by an old-school professor.

    In Russian, the term for “teach a class” is “read a lecture.” We occasionally hear even in English a similar phrase, though it is quite old now and rarely used. That professor, however, took it quite literally. Standing at the front of the class the professor proceeded to lecture — literally *reading* the material word for word — without so much as looking up, pausing for questions, or engaging the students in any way. It didn’t take long for the students to completely tune out. Mercifully, this was before the days of smartphones and tablets, or I’m confident I would have witnessed the entire class surreptitiously pull out their devices to escape the monotony. I didn’t go back to that class again, and I’m sure the students wished they hadn’t needed to either.

  9. Eric Anderson

    1 March 2012 at 3:33 pm

    Big Mike: “Were I a college lecturer, I would spend the lecture time developing a problem, and the interest of the students in the problem, then ask them to go away and be prepared to present their solutions . . . . These days, a lot of the background discussion on methods could be conducted electronically.”

    Big Mike, this is a great point. Although I no longer teach as a profession, I have spent many years in one form of teaching or another and have spent some time thinking about my own personal teaching philosophy and what makes a great teacher.

    I’ve come to the conclusion that a teacher’s obligation is to provide something that the student can’t get (or are unlikely to get) on their own. In other words, if I’m just working out of a pre-set manual, or just sharing a bunch of facts the students could easily find on their own, then I am not really filling the true measure of what I can do for the students. In my opinion, the teacher’s primary obligation is to get the students excited about the area of study. Students should walk away from a class thinking: “That is so cool! I’m going to go check that out or look that up!” If students can come away from a single class or an entire course with a sense of excitement and eagerness to learn more, then the teacher has set them up for a lifetime of learning in the field, which is far more valuable than specifics facts.

    The second obligation, because it is something that the students may not be able to get on their own, is to provide the big picture, the view from experience, the way particulars interact in the larger whole. This of course may involve facts and figures, but the real goal is to lay out the architecture or the landscape of the field. With this background, everything the students learn in the course and later in life can be placed in the appropriate context, better understood, and more easily retained.

    In sum, I think my obligation as a teacher is primarily to (i) get the students excited about the particular field of study, and (ii) give them a framework of understanding which can serve as the basis for a lifetime of learning — in other words, help them learn how to learn.

  10. Teaching is hard work and much too important to be done by people more interested in “research” and tenure. Does anyone know of a college or university where teachers are observed and coached to make them better? Is there any QC?

  11. Good luck with finding the job you want!

    I’m always surprised that departments don’t try to balance the two roles that professors are supposed to take – teaching and research. It should be obvious that the skill sets for the two roles do not have a lot of commonality, so why not have some professors whose focus is on teaching and some whose focus is on research? The idea that every professor should do both (and, implied, do both well) seems nonsensical to me.

  12. Speed,

    I don’t know about observation and coaching but Milwaukee School of Engineering is a non-reaseare and non-tenure school. Instructors there can be and have been fired for poor (teaching) performance.

    Note: MSOE has been a fully acredited university since before I went there in the mid 90’s. They have been trying to come up with a new name to reflect this for over 20 years, but it hasn’t happened because they can’t get an agreement from all the interested parties on a new name.

  13. Loving teaching isn’t necessarily a predictor of success, but hating it is a pretty good predictor of failure.

    I would say that this is true for just about any profession.

    The primary mission of University professors isn’t even to do research, it is to secure grant dollars.

  14. The dangers of treating the university as a jobs training center are illustrated by an anecdote…The “students had memorized everything, but they didn’t know what anything meant.”

    What does memorization without understanding have to with universities as job trainers? That may be fine for the military but the rest of us don’t want to hire someone who doesn’t understand the job. If the students are only memorizing then they aren’t being trained to function in a job. They failed as job trainers.

  15. William,

    My father would have agreed with you for in grad school he spent as much time reading everything else as he did in his field of study. In his teaching career he published almost nothing but was an entertaining and inspiring teacher. Students remembered him years later and would visit and send letters and one even visited him toward the end of his life. I would hope you find a good liberal arts school with an emphasis on teaching.

  16. George Steiner

    1 March 2012 at 7:35 pm

    Ah yes Mr. Brigs you want to teach, but who wants to learn?

  17. William Sears

    1 March 2012 at 9:56 pm

    Professor Briggs, I must respectfully disagree. It is always easier to point out the flaws in a method of instruction than it is to improve on it. Richard Feynman learned this lesson when he attempted to teach first year physics. The result has been published in the three volumes of the Feynman Lectures. It was an abysmal failure as Feynman himself acknowledges in the introduction. Don’t get me wrong, I greatly admire him, but his lectures, although inspiring for graduate students, are useless for the freshmen that it was intended to inspire. As to the disparaging of lectures, I must point out two things. First, if students could learn without them they would have vanished centuries ago. Second, whenever educational experiments have attempted to teach sans lectures, to great fanfare, they have failed miserably and the instructors have quietly returned to traditional methods, after proclaiming victory of course. I must also state that people are often fooled by a temporal effect. By which I mean that the first introduction to a subject can be difficult and confusing, whereas with the second time around all is light. The false conclusion often drawn is that the second method of instruction or textbook was clearly superior. It is amazing how often this simple error in logic is made. As to the efficiency of teaching styles or instructors I believe that this can only be determined with standardized tests, and even then with difficulty. Ones memory of classroom experience is not reliable. Like the drill sergeant, disliked teachers are sometimes more effective than popular teachers who you think are effective, but nothing is retained. I will grant that some teachers are so disorganised as to beyond redemption, but indentifying good teachers or teaching styles is much more difficult than most people will admit. Finally, I do not mean to suggest that all skills need lectures, e.g. learning to swim.

  18. Fifty-one years ago I managed to flood the Chemistry Department of our local university thereby closing it for a week. My technique for extracting cholesterol from gall stones went a tad haywire.

    The HoD was mortally offended. He fined my heavily and required apologies be delivered to all staff who had their offices saturated. Fair enough but that did not create quite the impression on me that the senior professor in organic chemistry managed. I can visualize him today. He was not offended in the least by the flood per se, but in my Bad Science. He dwelt on that and took me through my approach enabling me to estbalish what I had done incorrectly. The impression left was strong. He was a superb teacher. I never caused a flood again and my marks took a marked upturn.

  19. Steven Hales comment above reminds me of the famous Stephen Hales experiment and its demonstration to a class of first year medical students.

    Due to animal rights concerns, only one (optional) animal (dog) lab was offered in the local medical school. It was held on a Saturday morning and I was invited to help out. For free.

    Pairs of students were given one anaesthetized dog which they instrumented to measure cardiovascular parameters as they gave various drugs. At the end, the Stephen Hales experiment was repeated with one animal. This required a ladder and removal of several ceiling tiles. Oohs and aahs were heard.

    After the lab was done, most of the students remained and were given access to a basket of drugs to see their effect — on the dogs. Comments were positive. A good time was had by all. Much learning took place and nobody fainted or threw up. It’s one thing to memorize what atropine does to heart rate. It’s quite another to watch it happen.
    http://www.uihealthcare.com/depts/medmuseum/galleryexhibits/beatgoesonhistory/02bloodpressure.html

  20. Carmen D'oxide

    2 March 2012 at 10:22 am

    A growing trend in higher education now is experiential learning and inter-disciplinary studies. Will these ever become dominant? Doubtful, but resistance is fading as pressures from accrediting bodies, Congress, and parents grow along with the inevitable decline and retirement of the the dinosaurs. The increase in the number of female faculty, and especially of the female faculty serving on academic committees, also may have something to do with this. You speculate why. I as a non-faculty, administrative staffer just see it happening at my institution and elsewhere.

  21. Many years ago (approx. 38) I read a paper which discussed directions for engineering education in America. The question was which should be pushed harder: theory or application. The Germans and Japanese beat us in the theory department. IMHO, American engineers won, hands down, on innovation because they looked on knowledge as a means to accomplish something useful.

    Feynman’s observation about the Brazilian students nails the issue. We can, by pounding theory into their skulls, make our students less able to deal with reality. We can train them to miss the obvious.

    “A mind is a fire to be kindled, not a vessel to be filled” – Plutarch
    “Chance favors the prepared mind.” – Louis Pasteur

  22. George Steiner

    2 March 2012 at 12:39 pm

    Well Mr. CommieBob that was 38 years ago. But look around yourself today. The best engineering products today are not American but German and Japanese and when the Chinese will stop copying, Chinese as well.

    America has lost interest and skills in producing and inventing and making. America has not yet de-industrialised as much as Britain yet. But it is on the way. And what has gone is not going to come back.

    This is not understood by pencil and paper people, nor by people who only pound the keyboard.

  23. look at the bigger scale, Airbus is compettitive with Boeing not because it exhibits European values, but American.

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