Thursday, January 19, 2017

Statement of Teaching Philosophy

From the — I actually wrote this!? — file....

Statement of Teaching Philosophy
Jonathan P. Dowling

As the physicist and famed textbook author John D. Jackson once said, “Asking an experienced teacher about his teaching philosophy is like asking a fish about his swimming philosophy — it had better be second nature!” Another quote I am fond of was from one of my own woman undergraduate students, who told me, “The reason you are such a great teacher, is that there is no concept too easy for you to explain!” This taught me a lot. Anybody at my level can explain the difficult concepts — that is the easy part. Apparently my gift is to have the patience and wisdom to take a concept that may seem “easy” to me and parse it in a way that it resonates with each student.

At the graduate level, I view my role as instructor to be far more than a lecturing and grading automaton, but rather a role model for the graduate students to emulate to be the teacher and physicist. As a student, I was able to learn how to teach by emulating the masters, and learn how not to teach by studying pitfalls. Physics is a notoriously difficult subject to teach well, as the subject matter has a tendency to delivered in a dry, stuffy atmosphere, where any creative embellishments in the delivery of the material are viewed as a distraction from the accurate conveyance of the subject matter.

In order to make the subject matter of physics come alive, I have taken it upon myself to read many biographies and histories of famous physicists and their discoveries, and I weave these stories into my presentations in such a way that the spirit of Einstein and Schrödinger may live again in the room, as we learn together about not only their successes, but also their failures. Too often, physics is presented as a fait accompli, which sprang complete from the foreheads of our forefathers in its present, canned, homogenized, and pasteurized form Young scientists, struggling with their own successes and failures in their own research, need to know it is okay to make mistakes. This lesson is one of the most important for a student to learn. The second most important point is to have fun in what you are doing and to love it. It is hard for some young people to believe that physics should be fun, so I try bring them around by having fun with it myself in the classroom. With that they learn also that life is too short not to do what they love most.

Once you get across the point that learning physics can be fun, and that it is fine to make mistakes, then the students are all on board and it is smooth sailing. The quiet ones open up. The bold ones become wise and thoughtful. The assignments seem less tedious, the exams less onerous. For required core graduate courses, such as quantum mechanics, this lesson needs to be learned to face the vast amount of required material and the grueling exams. For graduate electives, such as the two-semester quantum optics course I designed and executed, it is critical to get this out front so the students will find time in their busy schedules to work hard with me on a mere elective.

From an operational point of view, I mix up the traditional lecture format with either planned or unplanned in-class student presentations. One of my favorite modes of classroom instruction is to take a seat among the students and discuss with them, not lecture to them, with each taking a turn to lead the discussion or go to the board and make their point, in mathematics or prose, and to have their peers and me weigh in on that point. Once broken of the fear to speak up in class — learning begins. This goes for my formal classes, and for my own research group meetings and seminars — where even the youngest undergraduate student must be made to feel free to be able to challenge a point the professor is making — especially since the undergraduate student is often right! A recent visitor to our group, Prof. Hal Metcalf from the State University of New York, was enthusiastic about our group discussions because, unlike in other research groups he’s visited, everybody in my group has a voice — and more importantly — is not afraid to use it!

In the end, as I teach, I am myself a role model for the student, not just as an aspiring physicist and scientist, but as a member of the educated citizenry that will guide the future of our world.