To teach your children well

With a mixture of art, science and inspiration, stellar CU teachers in classics, physics and philosophy embody the harmony of research and teaching, and their examples add context to the national discourse on ‘academic efficiency’

By Clint Talbott

With the help of students, Elspeth Dusinberre breathes life into Roman architecture.

Dusinberre, associate professor of classics at the University of Colorado, paces in front of a large lecture hall in the Eaton Humanities building, helping students see and feel ancient Rome.

She summons students to the front of the class, where, at her instruction, they form human arches. First, pairs of students press their hands together overhead. Nudging one student, who moves, Dusinberre notes that the non-bonded arch is unstable. When the human arches lock fingers—the role that a keystone plays in a round Roman arch—she shows, the arch gains stability.

Within minutes, Dusinberre has assembled a phalanx of students who have formed an arcade, a series of arches that is a basic design component of Roman aqueducts, the Colosseum and even sidewalks. Within the bays of each arcade, shielded from the elements, students (at Dusinberre’s urging) call to passersby, advertising their wares.

Dusinberre invites the class to imagine the scene full of people, animals, sights, smells and sounds. It is a cacophony.

“This is really exciting,” she concludes. “This is Rome.”

Some 273 students are enrolled in this class. The students, in a classroom large enough to facilitate daydreaming, are engaged physically and, it appears, mentally. It is clear why Dusinberre has racked up awards for both her scholarly work and her teaching.

Yin and yang, teaching and research

Teaching is one of the most visible duties of the university professor. It is also among the most scrutinized. In several states, teaching loads of tenured faculty at public colleges and universities have become one measure of “academic efficiency.”

As The Wall Street Journal observed recently, this new emphasis has raised hackles in academia, where faculty members “worry that it will upend the essential nature of a university,” where the Milton scholar who teaches a senior seminar to 15 English majors is valued as much as the astrophysics professor who lands a million-dollar research grant.

At CU, Dusinberre is among the academics whose performance makes a convincing case that teaching and research are complementary—benefitting both society and student.

Dusinberre clearly knows whereof she teaches. She gained much of that knowledge in the field, digging in archaeological sites on the Greek island of Corfu and at Corinth, in Egypt and in Turkey.

In her extensive online supporting material for the course, Dusinberre argues that “teaching” is a misnomer. “I think the emphasis should be on your learning, not on my teaching. After all, it is what you get out of a course that really matters. I think the point of good teaching is that it inspires you to good learning.”

In class, Dusinberre translates this view into action with several tools, including unannounced class-participation exercises.

Upon assuming power, Augustus, Rome’s first emperor, declared that all the world should be taxed. What, Dusinberre asks, would he do with all that tax revenue?

This is no rhetorical question. It is participation time. Students turn to their neighbors, write their names on paper, and jot down ideas about how taxes would be used. After a few minutes, five teaching assistants collect the papers.

As one student explains to an observer, this exercise prompts students to think about the subject, measures attendance and, as class participation, counts toward 20 percent of the course grade.

People’s Front of Judea

Elspeth Dusinberre, associate professor of classics at the University of Colorado, strolls into the classroom as she lectures, sometimes summoning students from their seats and asking them to illustrate principles being discussed.

After the exercise, Dusinberre finds a novel way to highlight what Augustus did with taxes. She plays a video clip from Monty Python’s brilliantly satirical “Life of Brian.”

In the film, Reg, played by John Cleese, asks members of the People’s Front of Judea, “What have the Romans ever done for us?” He is peppered with a volley of unwelcome answers: medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, fresh water and public health.

Apart from all that, an exasperated Reg finally asks, “What have the Romans ever done for us?”

“Brought peace,” one replies.

“Oh, shut up,” Reg barks.

With students chuckling, Dusinberre stops the film and introduces the Ara Pacis, Augustus’ altar to peace. Emphasizing the peace that followed a string of military victories, Augustus decreed that the doors to the Temple of Janus be closed. Those doors were open while Rome was at war, so closing them was, Dusinberre notes, Augustus’ “Mission Accomplished” statement.

Here, Dusinberre underscores the overlapping roles of research and teaching.

As she discuses the Ara Pacis, Dusinberre notes that Diane Conlin, the world’s leading expert on the Ara, teaches at CU. Conlin, also an associate professor of classics, “is an amazing teacher and an amazing scholar.”

Having employed British comedy, the Iraq war, class participation, and multimedia projections of art, architecture, literature, and an outline of the day’s discussion to explore Augustus’ creation of a new world order at the beginning of the Roman Imperial period, the class ends for the day.

In the field, eyeing class

After class, Dusinberre speaks about her background and teaching philosophy. Growing up in Boulder, she immersed herself in Greek myth and learned both Greek and Latin. She went to her first archaeological dig after her junior year in college. She loved it.

“I used to live to be in the field,” she notes. Immersing herself in foreign cultures like those of Greece and Turkey helps the archaeologist—who hails from another time and place—piece together what is more and less important about ancient history. That experience helps teachers prompt students to learn to think critically.

“I love teaching. As a classicist, you go into the field knowing that your highest ideal is teaching.”

“I really like getting to know how different people’s minds work,” she adds. “You learn something, and they learn something, and it’s a real discussion.” The ancient world, she says, “provides the most glorious opportunity and playground to learn.

“The curiosity I feel about how people lived thousands of years ago is something to bring into the classroom,” Dusinberre says. The work of research, and teaching research, involves the search for evidence, the knowledge of how to describe one’s analysis and how to make a convincing case that the analysis is correct.

“That is a huge element of university work.”

Just as students must do, researchers find their own ways to learn about things and articulate their findings, she adds. “For me to pretend to help people do that without doing it myself would be pure charlatanism.”

By the numbers

Performance reviews of the university’s tenure-track faculty reflect this balance. Faculty members are evaluated in three areas: 40 percent in teaching, 40 percent in scholarly work or research and 20 percent in service (which can include service to scholarly organizations and departmental committees).

Teaching loads vary by discipline. In the social sciences and arts and humanities, tenured and tenure-track faculty who are not holding administrative positions and not on medical, parental fellowship or sabbatical leave teach about four courses a year, two in fall and two in spring. Faculty in the natural sciences teach about 2.5 courses a year.

A national study by the University of Delaware of instructional costs and productivity shows that each tenured and tenure-track faculty member at CU teaches more student-credit hours than is the norm at CU’s peer universities. At CU, classes also tend to be larger than the norm.

Meanwhile, data collected by the federal government’s Integrated Postsecondary Education System show that CU’s level of support staffing is about 11 percent below that of its peer universities. Among other things, this means that faculty perform more administrative duties than some of their colleagues elsewhere.

Additionally, other duties must be balanced with teaching.

In the natural sciences like physics and integrative physiology, faculty conduct basic research, generally sponsored by agencies like the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health. Sponsored research is also done in the social sciences, which include disciplines ranging from economics to anthropology.

In the arts and humanities, course loads tend to be higher than those in the natural sciences, and sponsored research is less common. But faculty still conduct scholarly work and research. Dusinberre, for instance, has published more than a dozen articles as well as books on “Gordion Seals and Sealings: Individual and Society” and “Aspects of Empire in Achaemenid Sardis,” with a third book on imperialism in ancient Turkey currently at press for review.

In response to those who wonder why scholars in the liberal arts should conduct research, Dusinberre has an answer:

“To shed light on humanity’s origins, successes and mistakes. To encourage us to stand outside ourselves and view things from a different perspective, finding connections and differences between ourselves and others and using that knowledge to seek appropriate answers to the issues that face us. To understand other peoples, their arts, behaviors and social structures. To unplug us from computer screens and manufactured realities, working with tangible places and the physical manifestations of other societies both past and present. To inspire students to explore the limits of their knowledge and give them the tools to do so. To expand those same limits. To bring wonder to the classroom.”

In an online message to her students, she declares that she wants them to think for themselves about such things. “And I want you to think responsibly.”

‘Thinkers, not answer-makers’

Noah Finkelstein, associate professor of physics, takes a question from a pair of students in his quantum-mechanics course.

Like Dusinberre, Noah Finkelstein, associate professor of physics, has won the CU Boulder Faculty Assembly’s Teaching Excellence Award. Like her, he engages his students in a host of ways. And like Dusinberre, Finkelstein prods his students to become “thinkers, not answer-makers.”

This is clear during a session of Finkelstein’s course on quantum mechanics. He describes it as one of the best and most interactive courses he’s taught at CU. “I’m remarkably impressed with the engagement of this 100-plus student class, and how sophisticated they are.”

In the class, Finkelstein starts a computer-generated simulation of quantum tunneling and wave packets. He shows an electron with a high frequency and another with a lower frequency. Which, he asks, has more kinetic energy?

Students reach for their “clickers”—interactive tools that allow an entire classroom to answer questions and enable a teacher to assess quickly how many students are on the right track.

Finkelstein notes a “strong but not unanimous consensus” that the higher-frequency electron has more kinetic energy. In some sense, the curvier the wave, the more energy it has, Finkelstein says, exclaiming:

“I just think that’s cool!” He pumps one fist in the air.

As the class progresses, Finkelstein hurls candy to students who answer his questions, stops to confer with small groups of students, launches more simulations and takes an intriguing question: Do electrons ever approach zero motion?

“Yes,” Finkelstein replies.

The student follows up: really, or just in theory?

Really, Finkelstein intones, and he emphasizes the locale: “just down the hall, where we’ve gotten a billionth of a degree above absolute zero.”

After class, Finkelstein discusses teaching, research and service. Historically, research has been pitted against teaching, he says, adding, “I apply the same scholarly commitment to my teaching that I do to my research.”

“To me, they are complementary.”

Among its other roles, he notes, the university is a place where knowledge is generated. That point was vividly illustrated in class when the student asked about zero movement. “I can point people to a lab where that’s happening, where we’ve got the coldest spot in the universe.”

A quantum leap in learning

The course’s relevance to the student’s life is always important, but conveying that relevance is a particular challenge in quantum mechanics, which are not intuitive and which students often shun in favor of semi-classical notions of physics.

Building on work from physicists at University of Maryland, the physics education research group at CU has developed tools to measure the extent to which physics is seen as relevant to everyday life. The survey may be administered to students at the beginning and end of the semester, and they can help researchers like Finkelstein gauge the effectiveness of their teaching methods.

There’s good news and bad news, Finkelstein says. “We can impact these students’ beliefs. But we impact them negatively.” Students often leave believing that modern physics is too abstruse.

Finkelstein suggests that such results can be traced to traditional teaching methods. “When I give a multiple-choice test and written essays, that sends a message to my students that the kinds of problems we deal with in physics are one-in-five answers that can be answered in two minutes. But if you walk down the hall, you can talk to colleagues who’ve been working on a problem for three months.”

For students, the challenge is to make them aware that “doing science” is not a multiple-choice proposition.

Though quantum mechanics may seem marginally applicable to everyday life, Finkelstein and his peers search for ways to highlight the relevance.

“We get to basic questions,” like, how does a laser work? How does an MRI work? What are the basics of a transistor? For many students, such devices are “a black box.” Finkelstein aims to “unpack the black box.”

“We are now living in a world really transformed by the nature of quantum mechanics,” Finkelstein says, adding, “We’re just sort of at the tip of that transformation.”

In the 1960s, the laser was developed, but people wondered about its practical applications.

“We’re in the exact same place with matter, atoms and Bose-Einstein condensates,” Finkelstein says.

Why scientific literacy matters

Modern society demands a level of scientific understanding that most people lack, he adds. “They need resources, not just of content but in habits of mind.” On complex issues ranging from climate change, new energy and stem-cell research, citizens are being asked to make sophisticated political and personal decisions. “These kinds of classes support the development of an educated citizenry.”

“Our nation’s founders said we have a democracy based on educated citizens,” Finkelstein observes. “Currently, most people abdicate their responsibility to weigh decisions using evidence-based reasoning.”

Finkelstein takes that responsibility seriously, and his research dovetails particularly well with his teaching. That’s because his research focuses on studying how people learn physics and the conditions that support (or inhibit) student learning.

In recent studies, for instance, Finkelstein was among a group of researchers who found that the “gender gap” in physics scores arises predominantly from differential preparation prior to college and psychological factors, rather than differences in ability.

In a study published in the journal Science in November 2010, Finkelstein was on a team of six physicists and psychologists that found that the effects of these psychological factors can be largely overcome with a brief writing exercise focusing on important values, such as friends and family, learning or even music.

This simple “values affirmation” writing exercise, administered twice a semester, generally raised women’s course grades from the “C” to “B” range.

That is the kind of research Finkelstein does as one of the principal investigators of the Physics Education Research group and the Integrating STEM Education initiative. “STEM” stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. STEM education is an area of critical national focus. In the past decade, CU-Boulder has established itself as a national leader in STEM education.

Though he sometimes jokes with colleagues that he spends three hours a week in the classroom, Finkelstein notes the true nature of his work. “I certainly take the 40-40-20 rule seriously. My class is hardly the three hours I have in person with the students in that lecture hall.”

In this class of 106 students, Finkelstein runs eight hours a week of help sections for homework. Teaching assistants and learning assistants (who are graduate and undergraduate students, respectively) help guide these sessions.

In addition to office hours, Finkelstein spends a “decent” amount of time emailing students, usually responding within 10 minutes. Those questions range from queries about re-grading to “really deep questions about the nature of the science we’re talking about.”

On the web site for the class, Finkelstein has a page titled “I’m listening,” and it is a forum for critiques, comments and praise, which he addresses individually.

All of this, along with the research Finkelstein and his colleagues conduct on effective teaching methods in physics, can yield impressive results, which are routinely measured. In the fall 2010 quantum-mechanics course, students were asked at the beginning and end of the class if they viewed quantum mechanics as “an interesting subject.”

In past semesters, the portion of physics majors agreeing that quantum mechanics is “interesting” rose slightly during the semester, but engineering majors in the class showed about a 10-percent decline in interest after the class, down from just under 80 percent to less than 70 percent.

But after last semester’s course, a whopping 98 percent of engineering majors said quantum mechanics was “interesting.” As Finkelstein notes, none of the courses for physics majors showed a post-instruction rate this high. Something worked.

And the result was more significant than just heightened interest. It spilled over into the students’ understanding of the content of physics.

One of the challenges in this first course in modern physics is for students to understand the nature of measurement, locality and the nature of matter itself. “These ideas shift radically from our introductory, classical courses and is the stuff of much popularization of quantum physics,” Finkelstein says.

However most students prefer a semi-classical perspective at the beginning of the course, “and instruction usually has little impact on cultivating a more-desirable ‘quantum’ perspective.”

But Finkelstein’s fall class was the only course in recent years (including those specifically for physics majors) that managed to get more than half of the class to respond favorably to the quantum perspective at the semester’s end.

The life of Ivan Ilych

Claudia Mills, associate professor of philosophy, gives her students seven important philosophical works and asks them which they would give to Ivan Ilych, Tolstoy's suffering character.

Similar passion for teaching can be found all over campus. Another example is Claudia Mills, an associate professor of philosophy. Like her colleagues in classics and physics, she strives to vivify her subject. And like them, she has won the BFA’s Teaching Excellence Award.

In her signature “Introduction to Ethics” course, for instance, students begin by reading “The Death of Ivan Ilych,” by Leo Tolstoy. It is a tale of a life gone wrong and of the protagonist’s being haunted with questions of how life should be lived.

Then the class reads several books that could be used as guideposts on the road of life. At the end of the course, Mills asks her students this question: If you could give one of these books to Ivan Ilych, which would it be?

Among the choices are Aristotle’s “Nicomachean Ethics,” Epictetus’ “Discourses,” John Stuart Mill’s “Utilitarianism,” Nietzsche’s “Beyond Good and Evil,” Chogyam Trungpa’s “Shambhala” and selections from Sartre and Kant.

Mills says she like to gives her students “seven wonderful approaches.” It’s not that Ivan Ilych is a terrible person. As Tolstoy notes, “his life was most ordinary and therefore most terrible.”

As the class grapples with the Ivan Ilych exercise, it weighs questions of what is truly important in life. “My hope is always that someone’s life will be different because of my course.”

She also teaches a “philosophy through literature” class in which students focus on the search for perfection by reading philosophical and literary works that feature the creation of various utopias; for their final project, students write their own vision of utopia. In recent years Mills has carried a higher-than-average teaching load and continued publishing scholarly articles and award-winning children’s books.

Mills has written more than 40 children’s books.

Mills acknowledges that some might find it strange that a philosophy professor writes children’s books. “But for me, philosophy and children’s literature have a lot in common,” she says.

“I think of philosophers as being the people who ask the kinds of questions that the other grownups have stopped asking, who keep alive the kind of wonder that Socrates famously said is the beginning of wisdom,” she continues. “Many of my children’s books have philosophical themes running through them, and I’ve also written scholarly articles on philosophical/ethical issues concerning children’s literature (e.g., Laura’s moral growth throughout the ‘Little House’ series).”

Mills also brings an author’s sensibility to her teaching, working with students on their writing, helping them with the mechanics of writing and also encouraging them to write theses and dissertations with a “plot.” She observes: “I tell my students that I want to be on the edge of my seat wondering which will win out: liberalism or communitarianism? consequentialism or deontology? I want to have a reason to continue to turn the pages.”

The sum of her work enhances that portion devoted to teaching, Mills says.

“When you’re engaging with the issues yourself as a scholar, you do inhabit them more fully. You’ve worked through them more deeply if you have to come up with publishable work.

“It feels less second-hand, because you yourself are doing research in the field.”

Two of Mills’ CU colleagues, philosophy Professors David Boonin and Graham Oddie, have edited an important textbook on ethics called “What’s Wrong?” The book includes cutting-edge essays by several CU faculty members—including Mills.

That is another indication of the complementary nature of teaching and research. “We aren’t just reporting what people are saying,” Mills observes. “We are engaged first-hand.”

For teachers who do not conduct scholarly work themselves, she adds, “It becomes almost this game of telephone. To be yourself a participant rather than a reporter of other people’s opinions has to make a difference in your teaching.”

Finkelstein summarizes it this way: CU is a national leader in educational reform, focusing on students and student learning. “We know how to provide first-rate education, to do so even in large courses—using new, research-based, scholarly approaches—which complements our roles as researchers and employs similar habits of mind.”

In a speech to the CU Faculty Teaching Excellence Program last year, Dusinberre echoed those thoughts using the example of Galileo, who was persecuted for his observations of Jupiter’s moons and confirmation of a heliocentric solar system.

“He not only sought truth but believed more than anything else that he would find it. These may be simple notions, but they are not easy,” Dusinberre said, adding: “The stuff of excellence—truth, real scientific truth, and the pursuit of understanding without blindfolds—can be elusive. The commitment to excellence, to truth and understanding, is the core of good teaching.”

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