Wednesday, November 25, 2015

On trainers and teaching, Part VI, what walls? (11/25/2015)

It is always interesting to see that when you start something it has unforeseen consequences, in particular when they are positive.  Call it serendipity or coincidence, but it is often not the intent.  In my case, it brought down a few walls, or boundaries.

So what am I talking about?  As I recently mentioned in a post I was developing a course on wetlands and how it relates to stormwater and erosion and sediment control.  We felt there was a tremendous need for a class like this, since we always talk about wetlands in our classes and the need to avoid impacting them.  We felt that I was the person to do this because I have worked as a wetland scientist throughout the U.S.A. since the early 1990-s.  Well, we have rolled out the class and given it at two locations.  The class has been well received and the evaluations are great.  Both the materials and the teacher (me) are well liked.  So there is something to say for being multifarious, a jack of all trades, it helps in thinking things through in developing a class and standing in front of a room and talking about a subject.  I discussed that in this post as well.

A tidal salt marsh in a creek that is a tributary to the York River.  Tidal marshes are really interesting, to the eye they may seem fairly uniform and only occupied by a single species.  But this is far from the truth.  During high tide they are teaming with small (young fish) and at low tide they have fiddler crabs and other critters.  The plant species in them have a very narrow tollerance range of water (tidal) depth.  It is a really neat system.

Why then the unforeseen consequences?  That for a big part may have to do with my personality.  While I love to teach and be in front of a class; I hate to practice, do dry runs of my classes, tell people how it goes, what I am doing, you know it.  I find it difficult to develop outlines of what I am doing or how the class will go (a waste of time almost, I rather be developing the class or think about it).  For me developing a class is an organic I start out with a few ideas and things go from there I put things before it and behind it, wherever it makes sense in my eyes; I brood.  This can be infuriating to my supervisor, although he has learned to live with it and understands it.  However, you can imagine that people who do not know my style and more vested in the subject matter can get concerned when they experience my style first hand.  I do not like to rehearse my classes, and when I do, I find it difficult to treat a group of my colleagues, who I assume know as much as I do of the subject, as the students I am supposed to teach and know very little.  It feels like I am talking down to them and that is something I cannot do.  I like to talk to people at their level, which is probably why people rate me so high as a teacher (am I too arrogant here? I really don't like talking down to people, unless I don't like them, then I talk down to them like the best of them!).  Moreover, I do not rehearse my classes.  As I tell my students in the first class: “You guys are the dress rehearsal and the main event all at the same time!” 

During the development of the class I’ve felt two or three times that the class would be cancelled because of the sensitive issues that wetlands raise in this country.  We understand more and more about their importance as an ecosystem and habitat that needs to be protected, and for that matter the push back that conservationists have had in the past from the development and home building community.  So it is logical that this class was under somewhat of a microscope to start with.  Moreover, people are protective of their own turf, so it is difficult to have an outsider like me teach a subject that another group in our department is responsible for; they are the experts and they had no idea what my level of expertise was or what my teaching style was.  On top of that was my style of course design and development (in other words don't do as I do when you do course design) and my marginal ability to articulate it.

However, I can report all is well and I have received compliments from the group that considered asking us to cancel the classes and we received an offer from them to co-teach the class with me, the greatest compliment I can get.  I consider it a breaking down of a virtual wall between groups that is there whether you want to admit there is a wall or not.

But one thing is for sure you never get to tear down walls or get these neat unforeseen consequences if you don't try!

And yes, I need to really try to be more transparent in my course design, I guess.

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