How Alan Alda Helped Me to Become a Better Teacher

A few weeks ago, I tweeted about the difference that the Alda Center for Communicating Science has made in my teaching. To my sincere surprise and delight, Mr. Alda, himself, quoted my tweet, in one of his own. It made my day.

And today, after my last lecture of the term, the lab instructor sent me this note:

“I have students here putting in extra time (!!) on their [insect] collections, and they’re talking about how much they loved your class, and the applause you got at the end of class today. One of them is saying how it’s about time she had a class that was 100% relevant to Ag. I’m so happy for you, Gail, . . . I wish you could hear their conversation 🙂 “

To fully appreciate how much these comments mean to me, you have to understand how much of a struggle it is for me to teach. I score very high on the introversion scale. I hate the idea of teaching as performance (why do I have to entertain them?). I’m a stickler for academic rigor. My classes have a reputation for being difficult. And, I teach a required course that all majors must take (whether they are interested in entomology, or not), that is scheduled for M/W/F at 8am. All of these things, added together, make me a fairly unpopular teacher.

But this term was different. In January, I spent two days in New York City for the Alda Center for Communicating Science STEM immersion program. This workshop could not have come at a better time in my professional career. I was burnt out, in part because of: (a) the corporatization of higher education, (b) students who increasingly take a customer-centered approach to their education (where the customer is always right), (c) attacks on and rollbacks of scientific progress at Federal Agencies, and (d) public distrust of science. These things have all taken their toll on me and on my love for my profession. I was looking for something to re-ignite my love for science and teaching, and to stave off my growing cynicism.

The Alda immersion program did all of these things, and more. The premise of the workshop is that ‘Connection is the Key’ to effective science communication. The workshop instructors (including Alan Alda) use improv exercises in small groups and with partners to teach storytelling, message design, and how to really listen to, empathize with, and engage with your audience. Key messages were embraced over the recitation of hypotheses and theory. A heavy focus was put on connecting with your audience, so that even if they were not ready to listen to you in that moment of time, you might be able engage them at some point in the future.

There were two turning points to the workshop, at least for me.

The first was when we partnered up with someone to explain our science in 2 minutes, then 1 minute, then 30 seconds. Between each round, our partner gave us feedback on how to refine our message. When we came back together as a group, each person had to explain their partner’s science, rather than their own. In almost all cases, folks did better explaining someone else’s science ~ because we didn’t get bogged down in details. This really helped me to limit how much information I present in my classes. Instead of teaching *everything a person should possibly know* about a topic, I focus on key points, and how those points relate to students’ lives.

The second was when Mr. Alda demonstrated how he would discuss science with someone who believes the earth is flat. There was such a genuine kindness in the ‘conversation’ he had with the flat-earther ~ acknowledging their experience (the earth looks flat to them) while adhering to the science that demonstrates that earth is a sphere. It made me realize that I had become so accustomed to being right and defending my interpretation of science, that I rarely listened to others who disagreed with me. I was too busy formulating my retort, to truly listen to and understand their perspective.

This revelation was coupled with an exercise that was called ‘My Dear Friend’. In this exercise, you spend a few minutes ranting at your partner about something that drives you crazy. I ranted about the state of higher education, today. Your partner then has to share your rant with the group, by saying something like ‘this is my dear friend, Gail, and she cares passionately about the education that her students receive.’ I use this exercise, nearly every week. In fact, when I returned to the office from the workshop, there was an anonymous letter in my mailbox that was signed by ‘a disgruntled Master Gardener’. I reread that letter, and instead of feeling attacked, I could see how much the person loved this program that I help to coordinate, and how they wanted to share their passion for the program.

In terms of my teaching, the Alda workshop helped me to slow down, focus on key messages, and truly care for my students. This term, I am 6 classes behind where I would normally be. But, I think my students learned and retained more than they have in the past.

I stopped worrying about students who missed class, or who might try to cheat. Instead, I designed my class so that students who had to miss class (for whatever reason) had built in buffers that could help them absorb or make up lost points. These included things like dropping your two lowest quizzes, or earning extra credit points for lecture participation. I built an array of assessments into the class, including TopHat clickers from mobile devices, and adding ample short answer and essay sections to my exams. These things both made it more difficult to cheat, but also offered students with different learning styles different chances to do well.

I started bringing in breakfast on Fridays. I did this because Thursday is the traditional ‘party night’ on a university campus. In the past, my 8am Friday classes often had 15 or fewer people in attendance. (There are 50 enrolled in the course). I wanted to bring a small breakfast to say ‘thank you for showing up’. Over the course of the term, more and more students started to show up, and not just on Fridays. They went out of their way to thank me. Some told me that they were hungry, and that the small meal made a big difference to their day. Being a Filipina who loves to feed people, by nature, that’s all I needed.

There were a few other things, as well . . . students who shared some difficulty that they were going through that made it difficult for them to do well in class. Instead of my past approach of ‘not my problem’, I tried to help where I could.

Mostly, when I stopped feeling like I was there to serve as some sort of academic guardian . . . keeping all but the most-worthy students out . . . that’s when everyone (including myself) became invested in learning.

When I said goodbye to my students today, I heard the applause . . . but I was so confused. Was someone watching YouTube videos, in the back? It honestly makes me tear up to think that it might have been because they loved the learning environment that we built, together.

About Gail Langellotto

I'm a Professor in the Department of Horticulture at Oregon State University, where I also coordinate the statewide Master Gardener Program.
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1 Response to How Alan Alda Helped Me to Become a Better Teacher

  1. Pingback: Oregon State Professor Credits Alda Center for Transformed Pedagogy | | SBU News

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