Teaching Philosphy

Force Density

I was recently promoted to full Professor of Physics at Cal Poly.  I joke that, nearly 50, I’ve finally grown up and got a real job.  This was roughly a thirty year project from starting my freshman year as a physics major at San Jose State in 1986, through my masters degree, through my Ph.D. at UC Davis, through three postdocs, through a tenure-track probationary period at Cal Poly, through a tenured Associate Professor position, until finally as a full Professor in the fall of 2016 at Cal Poly.

In my case for promotion, I had to submit a teaching philosophy, which I would like to share here.  The ideas in it are not new; I don’t claim to have invented them.  Moreover, they are not cited because, in some ways, they are rather ordinary, blending into the background mythology of teaching culture.  However, I feel that the particular personal way I have presented the ideas is perhaps worth sharing.  The essence can be summarized as this: “Like I began, I have applied my own teaching principles to my own journey in learning how to teach.”

Statement of Teaching Philosophy

In my nine years at Cal Poly, I feel I’ve grown as a teacher and mentor. However, this newfound wisdom also makes me question my own growth; I now know how little I know whereas, when I started, I thought I had it all figured out. As someone not formally educated in Education, here are some of the things I’ve learned.

I believe education is important, but its success and purpose are difficult to quantify.

I believe education is important, but its success and purpose are difficult to quantify.  In education, success and purpose can become a tautological exercise where one begins defining accomplishments in terms of what one is accomplishing. This is not unlike adding items you have already completed on a to-do list then immediately checking them off to feel productive. There are many sensible metrics of education effectiveness, but most are of a specialized nature or difficult to identify. Like Heisenberg’s celebrated Uncertainty Principle, it seems that the more specific a metric of one educational success is, the more uncertain is its ability to measure another aspect of success. In my own teaching and mentoring in physics, this abiguity has driven me to reflect on the purpose of our curriculum and focus on what we want to achieve and how to measure it. Nevertheless, I believe that education generates understanding of the world, removes ignorance, and allows us to face the future with courage and dignity.

Education generates understanding of the world, removes ignorance, and allows us to face the future with courage and dignity.

But setting aside abstract philosophies of education, my conclusion is that a successful education is one where a student discovers their own definition of success and develops the skills to pursue it.  My particular specialty is physics, but I’m also human. If I facilitate this process by providing some skills and focus though my physics and my humanity, both in and outside the classroom, then I have been a successful teacher and mentor. I have helped guide many students through the struggles of the technical, day-to-day details of coursework, mentored them as they find their career path, and consoled them in their struggle to find out who they are as a person.

A successful education is one where a student discovers their own definition of success and develops the skills to pursue it.

Helping physics students find their own definition of success and finding the corresponding skill set to accomplish this has been challenging for me. But it is a challenge I have committed my life to and embrace with aplomb. In physics, one of the biggest barriers to promoting student success is also one of its greatest strengths: physics is both very generalized and yet fundamental by nature. Physics involves scientific ideas spanning about 30 orders of magnitude in space and time – from the quantum world to the cosmos and everything in between. It is a daunting task to prioritize these ideas for undergraduates and generate practical skills while also imparting rigor, problem solving, and deep understanding of fundamental concepts about the nature of reality. In my own work, I continue to experiment with different teaching styles and techniques, but have settled into what might be called the “traditional method” of lecturing enthusiastically at a board with chalk, asking them questions in class, giving regular exams and quizzes with quick feedback, and being available to students in and out of class, either online or in person. This path has allowed me to optimize my own ability to convey to students my enthusiasm for physics and to coach them in a positive, constructive way through the learning process. Feedback from students indicate they genuinely appreciate this.

Being satisfied and fulfilled as an teacher is a critical part of the student’s success and learning process.

Being satisfied and fulfilled as an teacher is a critical part of the student’s success and learning process. An empowered instructor is one who feels they are making a difference. An instructor driven far outside their comfort zone will not facilitate student success. If an instructor’s enthusiasm is suppressed, both instructor and student will suffer. Nevertheless, a teacher should be flexible and encouraged to experiment with different teaching methods while innovating, but they should also settle into a style that is most comfortable for them without becoming complacent or without compromising intellectual integrity. Because I’ve found my comfort zone, this also creates a positive learning environment for the students. They trust me to guide them on the intellectual journey because of the friendly confidence I try to convey.

The future will always require good teachers to engage and inspire students face-to-face.

The future will always require good teachers to engage and inspire students face-to-face.  In my option, teaching and learning cannot be completely emulated with computer algorithms, online courses, or simply reading about a topic at home. Yes, all of those things can augment a learning experience but, until the invention of neural implants, which instantly inject knowledge, experience, and mastery directly into the human brain, interaction with a human teacher is necessary for deep learning. While I do add some elements of technology to my courses and mentoring, I try to learn everyone’s name and treat them as a coach would treat a team: we are all in it together and let’s try to win this game together. In this context, it gives me a chance to connect more with students inside and outside the classroom and give them very personalized feedback. Grades are not given as an authoritative effort to control, rather a genuine source of assessment that helps them improve their mastery. I aim to allow students to make mistakes and learn from them without feeling like they are a failure.

A teacher gives a student a foothold into a complex topic and helps them initiate the learning process.

A teacher gives a student a foothold into a complex topic and helps them initiate the learning process. A subject like physics is overwhelming – to try and learn it from scratch without guidance would be an intimidating undertaking. Without this foothold, developing skills in physics would be quite challenging. But, like with any project, it is best to master it in small, digestible chunks. The teacher is one who has made the journey through the material and can break the material into the right-sized pieces. I try to take the perspective of the student, remembering what is like not to know something, and then convey the concepts that allowed me to make the transition to an expert. I reenforce this by giving many content-rich homework and content-rich take home exams in addition to challenging in-class exams.

A teacher can facilitate learning and guide the process, but cannot be responsible for it.

A teacher can facilitate learning and guide the process, but cannot be responsible for it.  A topic cannot be mastered in a single course. It takes repeated exposure to a topic over many years to begin to develop a meaningful understanding of something new. Learning a topic is a complicated undertaking. How much one has learned may not be realized for weeks, months, or even years after being exposed to it. Sometimes learning happens actively and voluntarily, but it even happens passively and involuntarily. To ask students right after a course “how much did you learn” is a meaningless question. Most instructors learn new things about material they have been teaching for decades. Given the students are the least qualified to assess their own learning, how could students possibly know how much they learned after a course if they have no baseline to compare it to? The adage “the more you know, the more you know how little you know” applies here. Similarly, akin to the Dunning-Kruger effect, “the less you know, the less you know how little you know.” This latter effect tends to breed overconfidence. A good teacher gives students a sense of a bigger world of knowledge, generating some self doubt, but without squelching enthusiasm to explore it further.

One role of a teacher is to, without sacrificing rigor, promote student satisfaction and to inspire students to learn more about a topic for the rest of their lives.

 One role of a teacher is to, without sacrificing rigor, promote student satisfaction and to inspire students to learn more about a topic for the rest of their lives.  In some ways, I value student satisfaction and the inspiration to continue their intellectual journey more than the content itself. In this respect, I try and provide the student with an educational Experience rather than just another class.

So, like I began, I have applied my own teaching principles to my own journey in learning how to teach.  By doing so, I have learned how little I knew. I have defined my own success and pursued the skills to attain it. I have taken initiative in generating and expanding my own learning process. Without compromising rigor, I have also found satisfaction in the experience of teaching, inspiring me to continue learning about it the rest of my life. This experience, I hope, makes a difference to my students and allows them to find their own successful paths.

Science Lies? Tales from the Science Illuminati

I’m a physics professor at the California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, CA.  Recently I came tWriting on dooro work early to find my office door decorated with the word “LIES” written in a childish scrawl across a “I Support Science” Darwin Fish sticker I have in the window of my office door.  The graffito, written with a red whiteboard marker, was probably composed by a student the evening before while studying in the building.  It was a minor annoyance to remove it because it was written on the frosted matte side of the window that wasn’t really meant to be used as a whiteboard.  I notified my Chair and my Dean of the situation.  They were sympathetic and obviously found the vandalism inappropriate.

I think it bothered me for all the right reasons.  I’m reminded that campus climate is not exactly universally friendly toward certain scientific principles that happen to be in tension with people’s religion.  That’s not good.  It makes me uncomfortable.  But in addition to the message, what makes me feel strange is the willingness to deface a professor’s door at all.  Even if someone wrote “cool!” across the fish, it would feel weird.  Who does that?

But, I was also able to dismiss it for all the right reasons. When the best argument someone can muster against evolution is an anonymous “LIES” scribbled on a physics professor’s door in the middle of the night,  it betrays a lazy and crippling intellectual weakness.  The feeble anonymous assertion “LIES” seems a cowardly gasp.   It’s a spontaneous act by a creationist that un-coyly says “I strongly disagree with you.”  But it is weird language. A lie is a deliberate act to deceive.  It implies evolution is like a conspiracy perpetuated by the Science Illuminati.  It would be the kind of anti-establishment graffiti someone would see in the 70s.  Naturally, I know exactly what it means to write “LIES” across an “I Support Science” Darwin Fish.  It is obvious.   However, the word choice is funny.  I think what they really meant was “WRONG.”

Some peers have shrugged off the defacement with a “kids will be kids” attitude: “Yes, it’s inappropriate, but you sort of had it coming with that provocative sticker.”  It is a sad state of affairs when passively declaring support for one of the most evidence-based theoretical frameworks in all of science is considered “provocative.”  The most support I’ve received is from the students in my department.  They were genuinely shocked at the event and were actually concerned about me, unambiguously condemning the action.  One student wrote me a very touching email making it clear that he and the other students stood behind me.  Although an unfortunate context, that part really did make me feel greatly supported.  It is a privilege to work with such colleagues.

Now back to sacrificing another Schrödinger’s Goat in my weekly ritual to actively perpetuate my sinister New World Order Parameter.