Tuesday 3 May 2016

Botstein is Willing

A palomino is going through a revamp of the introductory curriculum at 'Ireland's premier university' as they like to think of themselves. She had the idea that journeyman scientists might benefit from a course in Ethics and the Philosophy of Science.  If you can't do it right, you may as well hang up your white-coat now and go be a futures trader.  That's where smart, ambitious people go if they like the smell of money. Smart people also do science, of course, but many of them seem to imagine that Ethics is a) Arts Block and so unnecessary/peripheral b) really obvious/easy.  I've attempted previously to show that Ethics is Hard, and therefore a worthy challenge for scientists. Her excessively dull HoD thought that ethics was a) not necessary b) beyond the wit or ability of anyone on his substantial team to deliver c) impossible to source from outside because it would cost money. IF at a 'umble Institute, I can work hard and creatively and learn how to teach human physiology; remedial maths; 2nd Yr physics; biology and chemistry practicals in 1st year; environmental chemistry of water; food microbiology THEN surely a department groaning with intellectual heavy-weights could find someone to do 6 hours on Bacon, Descartes, Locke, Popper, Kuhn, Feyerabend. How interesting would prepping such a course be?

Revamping the first-year curriculum? Been there, done that [not!] at U Newcastle/Tyne in the 1980s. The Suits there, then decided to modularise the 1st year educational deliverables from 3 ‘courses’ into 6 ‘modules’.  It was easy for us in Genetics because we shared the hours already with Biochemistry. Nevertheless, I got over-excited and put a lot of thought into what would be the ideal foundation for a degree in biology [esp genetics]. A lot more evolution front-and-centre for starters; rather than starting off with The Nitrogen Cycle and a picture of a cow urinating.  At the departmental staff meeting where the new module was to be discussed, the HoD looked round the table and said “We don’t want to make a meal of this, I think we do a very good job . . . now Tony would you be willing to do the same lectures on virology that you’ve been giving for the last decade?”  And so on. There was no opening for opening the debate into ideals or essentials.

Doing education right is Work.  In “research-led institutions” as they smugly call themselves, teaching is what happens between grant applications. We have just finished our Five Year Programmatic Review during which every hour of several meetings was a tedious exercise counting contact hours so that each lecturer got exactly 18 hrs per week and each student got rather more. Lectures are naturally privileged over practical classes or small-group discussion because, for the former, one lecturer can 'deliver' education to a couple of hundred paying students . . . without anyone in the room learning anything. In our 5YPR, the content, let alone the overall theme/philosophy, was barely addressed. Anything goes so long as you call it a Learning Outcome or a Deliverable. The same-old same-old material that you've been 'covering' for the last 30 years is infinitely to be preferred to something that has appeared over the horizon more recently. Personally, I’ve done very well out of the Review: losing 15 hours of human physiology [which I really enjoy but have no competence to teach beyond the fact that I have a body] and gaining 15 new hours on molecular evolution which I do know something about >!WIN!<.

The Go To polemic on how to approach the problem of what should go into an intro science syllabus is suggested in an interview by Jane Gitschier and David Botstein of Princeton.
What we did was we had eight senior faculty, a sort of Noah's ark of science, sit every Monday at lunch for two to three hours and simply ask the following question for all of these fields at the most introductory level: Is this problem or this idea or this concept fundamental, or merely traditional? We collected all the fundamentals and did the best we could to make them into a coherent sequence.
The title of that interview is "Willing to Do the Math" but it might as well be called Willing to Do the Work rather than droning through your virology lectures same as last year. Even if your notes say "crack joke here" it's going to be unspeakably dull for everyone.

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