Dispatches | July 23, 2014
Teaching the Process: Lessons From a Writing Classroom, At Work in the Lab
Today’s Blog Post comes from Kristen Gunther
I was trying to hide it, but I felt sweaty-palmed and shaky on my feet as I stood alone in front of my students for the first time. The sensations caught me by surprise – after all, I already had a couple years of experience as an instructor at the college level under my belt, and those years had been good ones, full of challenges, discussion, and classrooms full of eager, bright people. But in those other semesters, I’d been a teacher of writing, leading college composition classes and creative writing workshops. Now, I was tasked with the education of science students sitting clustered at lab tables, surrounded by microscopes and anatomy models. This was no pathos, ethos, and logos or round-table discussion on Emily Dickinson. I was preparing to speak about the biology of fungi.
I started teaching in 2010, when I began my MFA, and was assigned a college composition course as my teaching responsibility. I don’t remember a day I didn’t enjoy it. Working shoulder-to-shoulder with students attempting to craft arguments that were their own, knee-deep in the labor of making sentences and paragraphs do what they wanted them to do, gave me perspective and energy for my own poetry and prose. But over the last few years, since entering a doctoral program in the sciences, I have been – largely – a science teacher, and have loved it just as much. While in a general sense it’s probably true that teaching anything prepares you to be a teacher of some other thing, I’ve come to believe that my experience as a writing teacher has been vital in shaping me into a science instructor – more specifically, it has infused my teaching with purpose, and hopefully helped my students develop perspective on their future outside of the classroom.
Ask your average person on the street what “science” is and you will likely get a suite of concrete descriptors: science is test tubes and beakers, science is numbers, science is biology and physics, science is what makes watching Cosmos so much fun. Ask a science student why they’re taking a class and the answers are often similarly pinned down – the course might be required for their major, or it might help them land a job. Standing at the front of a science classroom, your role is partly to introduce the particulars of a subject – yes, I do want you to understand the mechanics of nitrogen fixation. But there is a larger goal at hand, too: making the student into a scientist, whether that be for one semester or for a career. Such a task is not about the concrete, about hard numbers or figures or facts – it’s about learning to ask and answer questions.
When I was a writing teacher, I never graded on formatting, spelling, or grammar. While I’d offer notes for correctness and clarity to my students for future rhetorical sharpening, the single goal held at the heart of every class was to help my students develop their own voices – meaning take an idea and build the right words around it. What excited me – and what I hoped in turn would excite my students – was the idea of process. You take a raw idea, you work with it, shape it, look at it from every side. You try and you fail with it. It sits in the middle of your poem, your book, your essay about wolf management or gendered advertising. The true shape of an argument or a piece of art doesn’t come whole – it has to be made.
Neither do scientific “facts” stand alone – they are points in a constellation, and their meaning can change in the context of new discoveries and new interpretations. What we know about the world around us comes out of conversations and the process of asking questions – science is not an excavation of truth from where it’s been buried, but a series of connections grafted into the observable universe. This is what I want my students to understand: that science too is a process, an ongoing discussion. That they are part of this conversation. That the scientific method is more than an answer to a test question or the outline of a lab report – that it is a code by which we generate new ways of understanding. Make observations, form a hypothesis, test it, evaluate what happened, ask more questions. The process.
Scientific literacy has become a bit of a catchphrase recently – unsurprising, I suppose, at a time when talking heads in the media would have viewers believe that, say, there is still real debate among scientists about climate change. What scientists mean when they talk about this is not some net increase in the volume of digestible scientific trivia shared among students or citizens at large. It’s generating an awareness and understanding of what science is and what it does – how it enables us to ask a series of questions and build the answers toward an increasingly better understanding of the world around us. There is power in that, at the level of the individual and the society.
That first day I taught in a science classroom on my own, my anxiety vanished as I reached a portion of my lecture focused on fungal taxonomy – specifically, how the way we organize species of fungi is constantly in flux. We don’t know, I kept saying. I mentioned offhand that more than a thousand new species of fungi are discovered annually. We don’t know exactly how many more are out there. My knees stopped their slight wobble when I noticed the students in the back of the classroom paying rapt attention, nodding, raising their eyebrows, smiling. We were about to do an experiment – about to ask a question. Their attention, their enthusiasm, reminded me of the students I’d worked with in writing classrooms – how they came to realize, at some point, that it was possible to ask something new, to start with an idea that was yours and look out into unmapped territory. That you could work something out on your own, and that if you could say it in the right words, it could be valuable to others – part of a conversation.
The more time I spend as a teacher, the more I think that the fundamental goal of education is to imbue students with an understanding of “knowledge as a process” – how do we make ideas and what do we do with them? In some ways it’s an act of empowerment, giving students the tools and language to access the gears and levers, helping them understand that they have the capacity to enter a human-scale discussion about the universe – a level of understanding beyond knowing not to split infinitives or which monk originated the idea of heredity. I want my students to leave my classroom, my lab, my lecture hall with a sense of their own investment in the process. If they do, I’ll consider my work as an educator – of future scientists, writers, humans at large – to have been a small, lucky part of something lifelong.
Kristen Gunther is a doctoral student in ecosystem management and ecology at the University of Wyoming, where she also completed an MFA in creative writing. Her work has appeared in West Branch, CutBank, Parcel, THRUSH, Word Riot, and elsewhere. She can be found online at kristengunther.com.
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