Teaching & Advising

Peter Taylor, April 1995

[See also Introduction to my work]

The goals of my teaching and advising are closely related to those of my research and writing. In brief, I aim to employ reciprocal animation, promote critical thinking, and continually develop my pedagogy. My teaching, like my research, integrates social/historical/conceptual studies of science with the natural and social sciences themselves. Close examination of concepts and methods within the sciences stimulates students' inquiry into the diverse social influences shaping those sciences. By promoting critical inquiry about the paths science does and does not take, I lead students to identify the diverse kinds of practical interventions, as well as conceptual shifts, needed to modify the future development of those sciences.45
There are few models for such teaching. To further my pedagogical goals I have: sought out and incorporated a range of classroom techniques; built a high number of formal and informal contact hours into my courses; and developed a large suite of courses. The Biology and Society major forms the largest component of S&TS's curricular obligations and the courses I designed initially in STS are directed primarily at these students. Taking into account, however, the small number of S&TS faculty and the fact that it is a field in formation, I considered it important to offer a wider range for S&TS. My courses now include:
-- a freshman writing seminar on "Ecology and Social Change"
-- a core course for the Biology and Society major, "The Social Construction of Life"
-- a workshop research course on science-society issues, "Investigative Research on the Social Impact of Science"
-- a summer school course providing a critical introduction to statistical analysis
-- a graduate/ senior seminar on "The Social Analysis of Ecological Change"
-- a graduate seminar on selected themes in science studies and social theory. ("Structure and agency" was the theme in 1991 & 92 in 1994 the seminar examined changing ideas of nature and society in twentieth century United States.)
-- a graduate seminar on visualization in science and science studies.
These courses are directed at various levels and kinds of student. To convey the different pedagogical challenges of these courses and their paths of development I have prepared a binder divided into sections for each course, with the syllabus, evaluations and a cover page reviewing my objectives, approaches, and future plans for that course. The binder also contains a series of "exhibits," illustrating the important characteristics, themes, and products of my teaching and advising.46 In this statement I have room only for a summary or table of contents of these exhibits, which I have grouped loosely under the three goals, and for some specific illustrations of the principal themes. I describe one of my undergraduate courses,47 some collaborations to improve teaching, and the nature of my advising. While this material should demonstrate the seriousness with which I work at teaching and advising, the binder constitutes my documentation of accomplishments and on-going efforts to develop as a teacher.

1) Reciprocal animation
The ways I promote strong two-way interaction between the sciences and interpretations from S&TS disciplines are demonstrated in two exhibits:
A: Model courses, which break down the barriers among the natural sciences, social sciences, and the humanities; and between the sciences and S&TS.
B: Publications resulting from my linking scholarship and teaching.48

2) Critical thinking
I encourage students to contrast the paths taken by science, society, learning, and people's lives with other paths that might be taken, and to base actions upon the insights gained. To promote critical thinking my teaching and advising emphasizes:
A: Writing for learning, in contrast with writing to show what a student has learned.
B: Making comments on writing in ways that stimulate rethinking and revision.
C: Exposing the constructedness of teaching and learning, and avoiding pre-digested accounts; this acknowledges the variety of ways people come to know or to question.
D: Teaching/learning as a joint dynamic; both learning and teaching benefit from teachers and students viewing the class from both sides.
E: Empowerment to act upon critical thinking, building students' confidence to go beyond simply adopting a critical position.
F: Advising towards lifelong learning.
G: Facilitating trans-disciplinary exploration.

3) On-going development of pedagogy.
My commitment to developing S&TS teaching over the long term has led me to experiment, innovate and develop better ways to learn from teaching about teaching and learning. This is evident in my:
A: Developing a large range of S&TS courses.
B: Experimental courses and experimenting within courses to develop pedagogical approaches specifically tuned to S&TS and its open-ended state as a field.
C. On-going development of courses.
D: Varieties of course evaluation, integrated into the teaching/learning process.
E: Promotion of teacher-teacher interaction, especially a teaching co-op among graduate students and faculty.

The Biology and Society core course, entitled "The Social Construction of Life," explores the connections among scientists' use of language, social/historical location, political and economic interests, and views of causality and responsibility.49 This is my most challenging course -- for me as well as for the students. Most of the students are Biology or Biology and Society majors, accustomed to the certainty of science. In general, at the start of the course they resist subjecting science to interpretation or want me to provide a definitive social interpretation. I use the lecture part of my classes to introduce interpretive tools and alternative viewpoints, and to model the processes of critical thinking Each class also involves debates, discussions, and other activities in which students then test for themselves these tools and explore the tensions among viewpoints. Through participation in these classroom activities and by completing the many written assignments, a gratifying proportion of the students overcome their initial uneasiness with ambiguity and become more critical, or at least skeptical of scientific dogmas.
The course is time-consuming for all, but rewarding for most; students have nominated me for the Arts College teaching awards each of the last three years. Two other pieces of feedback help me measure my success here: I "debrief" with three students after most classes (a different three each time). The point in the semester at which they start saying "I was confused about what we were doing in this course, but now I get it" has come earlier each year. Equally importantly, given my goal of having students take critical thinking beyond this course, students often tell me a year or two later how they have come to appreciate the perspectives introduced in "The Social Construction of Life" and have applied them in many other courses.
Over time, as I have addressed the challenge of leading students to become critical thinkers, I have introduced, experimented with, and refined a variety of modes of teaching/learning interactions. I now make use of interactive lecture-discussions; guided reading of primary texts, secondary interpretations and current newspaper articles; small-group discussions and simulations; in-class writing exercises; frequent written assignments and required revisions; student co-leading of discussions and reporting on discussion dynamics; a binder of newspaper clippings; and another binder of previous students' work. The course continues to evolve. While at first it was small enough to conduct as a rolling lecture-discussion, now I compress the lecture component, and punctuate, follow or occasionally precede it with break-out sections and smaller group discussions in which the TAs share the teaching with me. Last year I worked with a group of "alums" from the course who reviewed each class in turn and suggested changes in the readings, discussion formats, slides, order of classes, and so on. During the last two years I have observed and worked with TAs on their discussion-leading. The TAs and I have also begun collaborating with the Writing for the Majors Program around the course's extensive writing component. In particular, we worked last fall on effective and efficient commenting.
In this spirit of on-going exploration of methods for stimulating critical thinking and inter- and trans-disciplinarity, I have promoted deeper discussion about teaching among receptive colleagues and students, sharing our problems, innovations, and successes in teaching as we do in research and writing.50 For a number of years I have been the S&TS Freshman Writing Seminars faculty adviser, which enabled me to observe and learn how to comment on graduate student teaching. Building on that experience, I co-organized a "teaching co-op" during the last academic year, that is, a program of graduate students and faculty observing and commenting on each other's classes. The role of observer has, for me, clarified many elements of engaged and engaging teaching. Having others comment on my teaching has stimulated me, for example, to incorporate a variety of non-traditional modes of interaction into my graduate seminars. I now regularly prime or punctuate seminar discussions with smaller groups analyzing selected texts to present back to the whole seminar. The teaching co-op is, I think, one of the kinds of activity needed if teaching is to become equivalent to and mutually supportive of research and publication in the intellectual mission of faculty and departments.
Outside the classroom, I have been one of the core undergraduate advisors in the Biology & Society major. This major's unique extra-departmental and intercollege structure makes it an advising-intensive major. So, in addition to having a good quota of my personal advisees, my office hours have always been advertized as open for other Biology & Society majors to bring their questions on a drop-in basis. Most undergraduates see Biology & Society as an opportunity to pursue a biology or pre-med education while also exploring concerns about science, environment and society, concerns that initially can be somewhat ill-defined. The most important quality of my undergraduate advising has been my willingness to assist students in clarifying their interests and career choices. My openness to their explorations has led me to supervise independent studies and thesis research for undergraduates on topics from soil erosion to science curriculum development. The latter independent study, for example, formed a key step in the path of Corinne McKamey, who at the time of she took my core course thought she was headed towards a medical career. Instead she became committed to the goal of bringing more girls into science, went on after graduation to train in a program for teaching science through hands on activities, which she now does within the constraints of working at the toughest margins of a big city. In a different direction, Carla Keirns, while officially a genetics major, was bitten by the science and society bug as a sophomore in my core course, and I encouraged her to take more S&TS courses. She went on to become one of S&TS's first "inputs" to a sister graduate program.
Similarly, to many graduate students, including some within S&TS, "science and technology studies" signifies something broader and less defined than the specialities of S&TS faculty. My strength as a graduate adviser is that I am always prepared to help students explore their wider intellectual interests, and back up such exploration with detailed bibliographies and connections to colleagues outside Cornell. When the students settle on their topics, I provide detailed comments on drafts of their proposals and dissertations chapters. The two students for whom I have served as committee chair have certainly challenged me as an adviser, both wanting to expand the scope of what constitute science and technology studies. One wanted to do Participatory Action Research related to technology in everyday life; the other to expose the mutual construction of resource management, anthropology, and indigenous knowledge systems in colonial India. While the first eventually decided that her interests could not fit in the field, the other, Kavita Philip, is now completing her dissertation and has just accepted the first S&TS faculty position offered to one of our department's graduate students.

44 For reviewers within Cornell, the Course notes/ Reader for "Biology and Society: The Social Construction of Life" are included in the teaching binder.
45 "Natural selection: The heavy hand" captures the spirit of this approach as applied, in my course, "The Social Construction of Life," to Darwin's theory of natural selection and subsequent applications of it.
46 This binder of course materials and exhibits is available for reviewers within Cornell only.
47 While having chosen the development of one undergraduate course to illustrate several aspects of my approach to teaching, I have taken equivalent steps to make both the scope and the processes of my graduate teaching meet my three goals. The "Social Analysis of Ecological Change," the "Science and Social Theory" seminars, and the current seminar on "Visualizing the Dynamics of Science" each innovate in ways appropriate to this field in formation, S&TS.

48 "The social analysis of ecological change," "Building on construction."
49 See description of the related book proposal in part 5) of previous section.
50 Standard end-of-semester computerized course evaluations provide, most of us would admit, little guidance for improving teaching.

Notes about author, disclaimer, etc.