When I first entered my doctoral program, my goal was to teach at the university level. Once in the program, though, I quickly realized that being a university faculty member had almost nothing to do with teaching. It is more focused on acquiring research grants, conducting research projects, getting published, and then applying for more research grants. Teaching? It was a side note to that whole process.
And that’s awesome for some people. Research is a germane and critical part of the advancement of human knowledge. But I wanted to teach. Not worry about money and publishing.
I began teaching at Southwestern Community College in 2013 and, proudly, continue my (part-time; now full-time) tenure there. At Southwestern, I’ve found an unexpected home that dovetails with my teaching philosophy and personal beliefs, with its diverse student/staff/faculty population and commitment to high academic standards alongside values of inclusion, diversity and equity.
My philosophy toward teaching involves four main parts:
Encourage learning how to learn. I’ve always found truth in the millennia-old saying, “Give a man [sic] a fish and he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man how to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime.” Excusing the gender biased-ness (but fully embracing the piscine reference), I think Maimoinides got it right nearly 1,000 years ago. One of the greatest things a student can achieve in college is learning how to learn; understanding the importance of piecing together information from other sections of the class or even from other classes they have taken to come up with answers that go beyond the topic at hand. In the classroom, rather than simply giving a student the answer to a question they have, I ask them to think through the problem. What can they eliminate as “wrong” answers and narrow down to one of the possible “right” answers? As well, I try to provoke the next logical step, when possible — to go beyond their current knowledge and think about possible answers to hypothetical questions.
Utilize dynamic approaches to teaching. There is no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to teaching students with such broad backgrounds at community college. I utilize a variety of teaching methods and assignments/exams. Those include technology (from YouTube videos, to 3D visualization tools in human anatomy), hands-on and drawing assignments, and individual and group active learning exercises. I provide thorough, well-organized study guides that leave clear and unambiguous expectations for the pathway to success in my classes. When evaluating students’ grasp on the material I’m teaching, in addition to standard summative assessments (e.g., paper exams and quizzes), I use formative, “real time” assessments through the use of oral and online quizzes, and in-class tools such as Plickers and PollEverywhere.
Apply relevancy to the topic. Information given to a student out of its context is likely to be forgotten just as quickly as it has been memorized. I strive to teach with meaningful and “real-life” applications to the material being taught. This seems especially important when working with non-majors students, who often ask questions along the lines of, “Why do I need to know this? I’m an English major.” In my general biology (non-majors) class, during the Ebola outbreak of western Africa of 2013, I brought to class the latest CDC statistics, explaining our current knowledge of the disease — it’s origin, treatment and spread. Hypothetically, that English major could eventually end up becoming a journalist; and with knowledge about how emergent diseases work, would be responsible for writing a ground-breaking story about the next major virus outbreak. Let’s face it, science affects just about every career, so there are infinite ways to make the subject relevant. Even within science majors, I strongly believe (and many studies back me up) that when information is applied contextually it will “stick” and be able to be tapped into for longer periods of time and in ways that allow synthesis with information students learn in their future classes.
Express enthusiasm for the subject. As an undergrad at UC Davis, I took a Plant Biology class that I thought, frankly, was boring and irrelevant to my Fish Biology degree. It wasn’t until the professor (Terence Murphy) came into lab one day and while explaining one thing or the other, started literally jumping up and down, clapping with excitement about what was being taught that day. That excitement was absolutely infectious. Suddenly, I was hooked. Plant biology CAN be exciting! It was a lesson that I took well beyond class that day — that getting excited about a subject inspires excitement in students in what might seem like an otherwise mundane topic. Take renal physiology, for example. It’s complicated and not exactly straight-forward; students tend to gloss over. But, because it’s one of my favorite systems, my enthusiasm tends to boost up theirs — “What’s Dr. J so excited about? I should pay attention to this!”
Diversity, inclusion & equity
As a member of the LGBTIQ community, I grew up experiencing many of the unfortunate consequences of prejudice, bigotry, discrimination, exclusion, verbal and even physical bullying. With this background, I am not only keenly aware of the problems associated with being part of a minority/marginalized group, I am committed to doing my part to ensure ALL students (and faculty/staff) feel that they are, first and foremost, welcomed and encouraged to participate as a valued part of the campus and classroom community, regardless of race, gender or gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, political affiliation, economic status, and physical or learning ability.
Diversity, in a word, rocks. Yes, I’m a middle-aged white guy, but I have always appreciated and celebrated the spectrum of people around me who are not like me. Diversity brings new and different ideas to the table. Usually, in ways that are quite unexpected! And it’s a two-way street. Often, I’m the only gay guy in the room and I contribute my background, personal and cultural experiences, knowledge and perspectives that other people never considered when talking about things that seem as straight-forward as, for example, human anatomy. Diversity? I’ll say it again: it rocks.
Equity was a concept that I struggled with for a minute when I first started teaching. How is it different from equality? It begins with recognizing that not everyone is coming from the same place. Students have different backgrounds in their preparedness for college, different levels of financial access, different learning abilities and, as such, have different needs in order to succeed in college. So, treating everyone equally in the classroom is certainly not the same as treating students equitably.
How do I, as an educator, address equity in the classroom? At the most basic level, I do my best to make sure that all students receive fairness and inclusion in the classroom. It also means, on my part, being aware of, and making sure students are aware of, the resources available to them through the college or community at large, whether those be financial aid, tutoring, instructional accessibility (such as closed captioning or non-English versions of videos), personal wellness, or things as simple as where to get a meal or grab a shower before class.
In the divisive climate that we are currently experiencing in the U.S., I feel that it is especially important to focus on these goals of diversity, inclusion and equity. That creating a space where all students/faculty/staff can come, feel included and welcomed, and provide the best possible education available in a way that encourages involvement and realizing the dreams and principles that our country has long stood for should be at the forefront of our attention within the arenas we are able to directly influence.
I have participated in the following professional development seminars, certifications, and teaching-related projects:
Advancing Equity Teaching Symposium. A two-day gathering, featuring presentations and related activities: “How neuroscience is changing what we know about learning: practical insights of instructors,” and “Cultural competency: a critical skill for educating students for success in the 21st century.” August 2019
Implementing Active Learning Strategies in Community College STEM Classrooms of Hispanic-serving Institutions. An NSF-funded study through UCSD, encouraging and evaluating the effects of active learning techniques in student success. Academic year 2018 – 2019
Culturally Responsive Teaching at Hispanic-serving Institutions. A look at classroom practices, and balancing individuated and integrated cultural ways of learning. February 2018
LGBTQI Safe Zone Certification. A program providing an opportunity for community college members to become allies and develop greater cultural fluency around LGBTQ issues. September 2016
LGBTQ on Campus. An online simulation designed to educate about best practices in supporting LGBTQ students, struggling due to harassment or exclusion. September 2016
Effects of Racial Micro-aggressions on the Success of College Men of Color. A workshop discussing the role that racial and gender microaggressions have on student success outcomes for community college men of color. March 2016
Building a Campus of Inclusion: What can Administration, Faculty and Staff Do? An informal discussion, towards creating a campus where diversity and difference are embraced, and not feared. February 2016
Moving forward, I would like to…
• Start teaching General Microbiology
• Start teaching Introduction to Fermentation Science
• Continue in professional development and getting involved with committees / organizations related to equity and inclusion (especially as it pertains to LGBTIQ campus community members)
• Develop more YouTube videos and other resources for students in my current courses