Category: UCSD

Regrets? Yes. And no.

My trek from geeky highschool student to Associate Director at the Center for Teaching Development at the University of California, San Diego has definitely followed the alternative academic career path.

You Choose Your Path

When I finished my Ph.D. at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, I jumped off the tenure track to teach math at a 2-year college in Vancouver.  A few years later, I stepped halfway back into the Ivory Towers when I split my time between teaching introductory astronomy (#astro101) in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at UBC and being the resident astronomer at the H.R. MacMillan Space Centre (aka, the Planetarium) in Vancouver. I eventually ended up full-time in Physics and Astronomy at UBC, not on the tenure track but as a Science Teaching and Learning Fellow in the Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative. (Is there an adverb-form for gobsmacked or mind-blown? Oh well…) Gobsmackedly, I was in the office across the hall from where I’d first met my M.Sc. supervisor, Bill Unruh, some 18 years earlier. Now, I’m a faculty member in the Center for Teaching Development at UCSD, with the rank of Academic Coordinator.

Never have I been on the tenure track. Never have I been able to put “Professor” on my business cards.

And because of that, I have one regret (one is enough for this post): I’ve never felt the satisfaction and pride of having a graduate student. Because that’s what professors do, to move their disciplines forward. It’s their shoulders that the grad students stand upon to see further. When I hear from colleagues about the success of their students, I feel a wave of regret.

This summer that wave  was reduced to a twinge.

Part of my job at UCSD is to teach a class called The College Classroom about teaching and learning to graduate students and postdocs. Some of the graduate students become Summer Graduate Teaching Scholars (SGTSs) and teach a course in the Summer session. As part of our ongoing support, I observe each SGTS’s class 2 weeks into the 5-week marathon and give them some formative feedback.

And it was there, sitting in the back of those classes, that my wave of regret was reduced to a twinge. This summer, I witnessed first-time-ever instructors

  • running flawless peer instruction with clickers
  • drawing out students’ preconceptions and immediately integrating them into the lesson
  • creating a supportive learning environment where students feel free to discuss their personal, sometime quite, experiences
  • make every single one of the 5o students  in the room feel like they have a critical contribution to make to the class
  • ask the perfect question to ignite a conversation that experts in the field would have

Sometimes I sat there thinking, “Seriously? How did she know to do that? Awe. Some.”

Can I take all the credit? No, of course not, no more than a supervisor can take all the credit for grad student producing a succesful thesis. But I definitely had a role to play and, man, does it feel good.

And, so, what about my circuitous trek through higher ed? No regrets.



If you find yourself on a alternative academic path or you’re approaching the fork between tenure-track and not tenure-track, get on Twitter and follow the #altac hashtag. There are many others like you struggling with the same decisions you’re making.

Teaching about teaching

One way to achieve effective, evidence-based teaching and learning in higher education is train the next generation of university faculty, today’s graduate students. Then, year after year, a new wave of trained instructors will march into lecture halls around the world until every instructor-thru-professor has a practical and theoretical background in teaching and learning.

Yes, it will take 40 years to complete. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t start, right?

The mission of the Center for Teaching Development (full disclosure: I’m the Associate Director there) at the University of California, San Diego is to prepare…oh, read it yourself:


A significant piece of their preparation is participating in The College Classroom, a course I teach each Fall and Winter. It’s based on a course taught through the Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching and Learning (CIRTL) Network. UCSD is a member.

The College Classroom is a lot of fun to teach. Occasionally, though, I get trapped in recursive teaching about teaching about teaching… loop that’s hard to escape.

  1. The course is about teaching.
  2. I’m teaching about teaching.
  3. I’m acutely aware that not only am I presenting ideas about teaching, I’m modelling how to do it. For example, I cannot *lecture* about benefits of student-centered instruction. Have you ever tried to write a peer instruction question about peer instruction? Now you’re starting to feel my pain…
  4. I have to remember, like a good instructor should, that my students are not (yet) experts in the subject and may not be aware of what I (or they) are doing. So, I regularly break out of character and fourth-wall with them, revealing what it is I’m doing and why. For example, the when we use whiteboards, I make sure everyone has their own colored pen (otherwise, he who holds the pen, holds the power) and I make sure I tell them that I made sure everyone has their own colored pen (otherwise…)
  5. Like a good instructor, I carefully plan the activities we do in class, thinking about what I can reasonably expect them to accomplish, how to efficiently run the activity, what resources are available, and so on. They don’t get to see that, though: I’m doing it in the days, hours (and minutes) before class begins. They should hear about that stuff, though, and I’ve started writing “behind the scenes” notes in the blog post, like this one, after each class. That’s teaching about teaching, too.
  6. This is forcing me to think about my thinking about teaching and they say metacognition is one of the keys to How People Learn. They also say you need to give your students opportunities to be practice being metacognitive. I’m doing that, on one of the teaching-about levels.
  7. And here I am, writing this post with the aspiration that it could help the next instructor who teaches such a course. Am I teaching about teaching about teaching?
On white: Who you really are
(Image: On white: Who you really are by James Jordan via Compfight on flickr CC)

This is why I occasionally get paralyzed, hands poised above the keyboard in my office or fingers frozen over the clicker in class. This thing I’m about to do, which level of teaching is it, again?

Well, they can kick me out of the Teachers Club for giving away the stage secrets but I’m going to keep telling the College Classroom students what I’m doing and why. Teaching isn’t a purely theoretical endeavor. If I want the next wave of instructors to have theoretical and practical skills, they need to see it and hear it and practice it for themselves. That’s how people learn, after all.

My tweeps are coming with me

[Note: this post began as a comment I left on a post by Maria Anderson (@busynessgirl on twitter). She announced she’s heading to a new job. I recently did that, too…]

As I announced recently, I’m leaving UBC and Vancouver for a new position at the University of California, San Diego. Amongst the hundreds of joys, sorrows, thrills and frustrations of leaving one community and joining another, twitter is playing an important part for me.

Yes, this is another post recommending you get on twitter if you’re not there yet. And if you are there, here’s another reason why that was a good choice.

One of the things that is making this move easier, and harder, is twitter. I already chat regularly with dozens of colleagues around the country that I’ve never met in person. I’m not leaving them behind when I move. They’re only an arm’s length away in Tweetdeck on my laptop and hootsuite on my phone. That’s only as far away as they’ve ever been.

There are lots of people I know, I like, I [gulp] love in real life, here in Vancouver, that I’ll continue to work with, laugh with, #happytears with, and occasionally #damnsomethinginmyeye with via Twitter.

It’s comforting that my followers and followings are coming with me. I waved goodbye to a few colleagues yesterday and felt almost no twinge of sadness because I chat with them almost every day on twitter.

Of course, getting together with colleagues and friends is important. We’re social animals, we need that interaction. I’m not suggesting I don’t value that or crave that. I am suggesting that twitter softens the gash of leaving your community.

It’s funny but I felt bad, almost guilty, during the time between applying for the job and getting it because I couldn’t share my job-getting experiences with my Twitter community. You know, confidentiality of who’s applying for jobs, not wanting to reveal any info that might come back later. And honestly, not wanting to reveal going after a job and then not getting it. I’m so used to sharing my professional and personal adventures, I felt bad hiding the thrill of emailing my CV, or how nervous I was just before the interview, or the adrenaline rush when it was over.

It was such a relief to finally share my news.

There you have it:

Reason #781 for being on twitter: Your followers and followings come with you when you move.

(Image: adapted from Boxes by james.thompson on flickr (CC). I added the twitter logos, myself.)