Learning to teach

I just got back home from giving my first ever real lecture. I’ve been bouncing around on adrenaline since 1pm or so, cycled there, did the thing, cycled home. Stumbled into the bathtub with a lot of chocolate and did nothing for the next hour.

To set the scene: I was to teach fresh MSc students all about molecular biology. Not a big deal, right? Trouble is, some of them did undergrads in medicine, some in basic science. Meaning that their existing knowledge was quite diverse. I tried to get them all to the same level by starting out with really basic things and slowly building up. I invited them to ask questions and make it all a bit interactive.

Interestingly, the slides I had expected to be difficult went down quite smoothly. Not many questions asked, but also no puzzled looks. The slides I thought were gonna be easy, resulted in more questions. Maybe because I was really well prepared for the difficult ones and less so for the easier ones? But of course – that I cloned a million plasmids doesn’t mean it’s easy for them to grasp, and that I’ve never handled an electron microscope doesn’t mean I can’t explain the basics. Some of the slides went pretty badly IMO, but maybe only because I know the techniques involved very well? I knew I was leaving out details, but they of course didn’t…

The interactive bit worked out quite well, so well that I didn’t have enough time to cover the last two slides and in the end had to resort to “okay, know what? Forget about this – we’ll not include it on the exam”. Which I could do, because I haven’t handed in the questions yet. Two of them grunted at this though – they were the ones with the most advanced knowledge who were a bit upset about discussing so many “basic” things and then skipping over the finally interesting slides…

Because I might want to develop a teaching portfolio, I asked them to fill out a short evaluation form. I’m happy, because on a scale of 1-5 on how well I explained things, I got only a few 3s, mostly 4s and even some 5s. Not too bad, for a first lecture, right?! They also liked the structure and material used.

Interesting parts are difficulty: even though the survey was anonymous, I can tell that the medics rated it as too difficult, the scientists either as neutral or too easy. No idea how to resolve that issue. It really went from “too difficult, so maybe split into two lectures” to “it was too easy, maybe include additional topic X”? Which isn’t really up to me to solve – that’s for the course director. Still interesting case to spend some thought on. And a great thing for a teaching portfolio – how would you best handle such a situation?

Which has given me a great solution to a first-world dilemma: I’ve decided to spend Christmas at my parents’. The first two weeks spent at my parents’ since early 2007….. I was afraid I would grow very bored, but now I can work on this portfolio there. Sounds good to me 🙂

The most important message for me right now though, it that this lecture reminded me that I should try to be less of a perfectionist. Of course I didn’t say everything I had planned, and yes, some explanations probably could’ve been better. But in the end that didn’t matter. The feedback tells me it was okay for the students, they said they understand the material and the exam will tell whether they actually learned something. For a first lecture, I should be happy. I’ve learned a lot, there are things I would do differently in the future. The students didn’t complain. What more can you really want?!


Busy bee

There are so many things happening, that I seriously don’t know where to start.

Remember that I applied for a teaching position? I got invited for an interview!! So I’m reading up like crazy on the curriculum I’d have to teach, on the panel members, on teaching methods. Anything that might help basically. I’m really excited about it, just how incredible would it be if I could be one of Oxford’s tutors?!

Also, I’m going to give two lectures in a taught masters programme. Apparently nobody has been able to do a intro to molecular biology that was entirely satisfying in the 6 years that the course exists. I’ll get the presentation used last year plus the students feedback and am allowed to do whatever I want. My brain cells can’t decide whether they want to focus on the interview first, as they would really like to start designing this lecture… Being told nobody has been able to find the right balance for this lecture makes me determined to show that it IS possible.  The other one is on bioinformatics, which is also gonna be really fun to do. Have to think about that one too; find some nice examples to have them work with.

Crazy stuff. Going from non-paid assistant at my previous university, to lecturing and maybe (and I would pray to god now, if I would believe in her…) tutoring!

As if that isn’t enough, my boss has decided he needs a publication soon to support some grant application. And has proposed a project in which I can combine some of my data with data from one of my colleagues. It sounds really promising, with our data combined we already have quite a bit of information and might indeed publish something relatively soon. How incredible is that?! Like half a year after starting here already thinking about publishing stuff? It took me 3 years in my PhD project before publishing anything…

It still bothers me that the cost of all this has been my relationship, as I cannot make up my mind as to whether that was the right thing or just incredibly stupid. But when I see how excited and happy I am about all this, it might turn out to be worth the price paid however sad 😦

What goes around, comes around

I wonder why this is happening. I feel like I am going from unknown depths in my life, to climbing back up that mountain within days. Which means that one week I’m making you read how miserable things are and then in the following week I tell you how fabulous life is. Lets hope I won’t keep bouncing as strongly…

On Thursday, I attended a course organised by the Medical Sciences Department on how to teach in small groups. Having my recent application for a teaching fellowship in the back of my head, I figured this might be a good preparation for an interview – should I be invited for one… And let me tell you this: I’ve never been to such an informative and fun course before. After half a year in Oxford, asking occasional questions about the University and its colleges but getting only vague answers, I now finally understand what these colleges are. And also know what these mysterious tutorials are good for. (note to self: write a post some day to share these insights with the wider world!) Unfortunately, the course ran a bit longer than scheduled and I had to run for an appointment at the dentist (of which I seem to have too many lately…).

I decided to send one of the organisers an email to apologise for running off like that, before they had finished. And to tell him I thought the course was really good and was even considering to go further than this one day and try to get an official teaching qualification. Not because I anticipate to need that in near future, but because I’ve always been interested in education and this course had rekindled that spark.

On a side note, I strongly believe that positive feedback is very important. If I am happy with something, I tend to tell people. I realised that the British are even more surprised with that than people back home. When one of the PhD students in our lab had given me a protocol that was really easier than my protocol, I told him I couldn’t believe that would work, but would try it anyway. When it did work, I told him and thanked him for sharing his secrets. And I’ve also told our lab manager that I’m impressed with the way he built a lab from scratch in half a year and is juggling the partially opposing expectations from us, the PI and the director. They both seemed genuinely surprised with my feedback, but really happy. They both told me that generally the British don’t say that kind of thing out loud. On the other hand, they also don’t complain. It’s still pretty alien to me, why can’t you show some emotion and let people know how you feel?

But to get back to this course. I went home after seeing the dentist (and being told that a third tooth is dying off too 😦 ) and sent a tweet into the world, linking to this course and telling how good is was. Then, I phoned some friends and told them too. And realised that I had really enjoyed it, so why not give them that feedback? So I did just that. I googled one of the organisers to get an email address and sent off this email. The next day, I got a reply that he was really happy with my feedback, as they rarely got any. Which convinced me that it is good to let people know when you appreciate them or what they do. I really dislike the fact that people seem to be more willing to complain about negatives than to truly appreciate positives.

Which would’ve been fine, if this had been the end of it. But then I got an email from the other organiser (there were two) to thank me for the email I sent the other guy. Turned out it probably was the last course he would run and my feedback made that kind of special to him. I explained what I said earlier in this post, that I am convinced people should speak up more when they appreciate something. To which this second organiser replied that this was exactly what they had been trying to explain during the course, that teaching isn’t only about getting facts through, but about inspiring people and making a difference.

And then. I still can’t believe my luck. He offered to mentor me if I’d like to start with a portfolio, which is necessary to get this teaching qualification, and that if my molecular biology is any good, he might even be able to help me get started with teaching. Are you kidding me? Most people apply for millions of things before they get offered a position, because of the high competition in medical sciences in Oxford, and he just throws something in my face? I still have to reply to his email to accept his offer, but I definitely will!

I’m absolutely not trying to say that you should become a slime ball trying to convince everybody you love them, because you think they will then magically fix your life for you. That’s not gonna get you anywhere. But you can make a big difference for people by genuinely appreciating them and what they do. With little to no effort, you can make people happier. And every now and then this comes back to haunt you 🙂