Print This Issue

Talk About Teaching and Learning
February 5, 2008, Volume 54, No. 20

That Which is Observed Changes the Observer

Paul Sniegowski

New young faculty at Penn are hired largely on their scholarly accomplishments and promise, but we expect them to provide excellent teaching, too. Although our supposition is that active scholarship enables teaching, everyone knows that great scholars are not always great teachers. Teaching can take time and energy from research, and the strain of this tradeoff is felt keenly by new faculty as they work to establish their careers. Yet we have an obligation to teach well to uphold the ideals of higher education and—dare I say it?—to justify the tuition our students pay to attend Penn. Moreover, teaching well is invigorating and can stimulate scholarship, as anyone who has had good days in the classroom will tell you. So it is in everybody’s interest that young faculty flourish as teachers. How can they do it? Penn’s Center for Teaching and Learning and some individual departments provide helpful workshops for new faculty at which experienced faculty speak about teaching. Having myself spoken at these events, however, I have always felt that what I have to say has an uncomfortable amount of platitude in it. I’m convinced that the full truth about teaching is more personal, more particular to subject matter, and more anchored to what actually goes on in the classroom than can be communicated on such occasions. Indeed, in my own beginning years here the most helpful teaching influences came from observing, being observed by, and working closely with experienced individual faculty in my department. In this essay I would like to highlight the value of such one-on-one teaching observation.

Drawing conclusions from one’s own experience completely lacks statistical validity, of course (sample size: 1), so what I really hope to do is to get anyone who reads this (sample size: >1 presumably) to consider the influence that observing and being observed could have on his or her teaching. Although I am ignorant of formal theories of learning, I am, nonetheless, willing to assert that one of the most significant ways in which we learn—from childhood onward—is by observing and emulating others. Such observational learning, tempered by our own experiences and reflections, can offer us continuing possibilities to learn and improve our teaching itself.

Like many young science faculty, I came here with little classroom teaching experience. During my entire time in graduate school and on my postdoc, I gave a total of only six lectures. (Even in the humanities, where lecturing for courses is more common during the graduate student years, young professors seldom receive much personal guidance on what works in the classroom before they start their first faculty positions.) My own apprenticeship in teaching came largely in courses I co-taught with two of my department’s experienced faculty, Warren Ewens and Greg Guild. With Warren, I taught Biology 410, a small (about 15 students) advanced lecture course on population genetics open to graduates and undergraduates. With Greg, I taught Biology 121, a very large (about 250 students) introductory lecture course attended primarily by anxious premeds. Observing the masterful way in which these contrasting courses were taught by Warren and Greg gave me an invaluable personal introduction to the practice of teaching.

Warren Ewens is a powerhouse population geneticist and could easily have taught Biology 410 way over the heads of everyone in the class, including me. To my surprise, his lectures began at a rudimentary level and at a very leisurely pace. Later I realized the wisdom of this approach as I watched Warren move the class serenely into increasingly advanced topics. Warren provided the class and himself with breathing space between the main points in a lecture, at times just allowing something to sink in without saying anything for awhile. Warren’s teaching is low-tech. As far as I know, he teaches almost exclusively with the chalkboard; observing him teach is a lesson in the effective use of simple means to convey complex ideas. Finally, Warren was and is superbly accessible to his students. He is unfailingly courteous when questions are asked in class, and he is extremely generous with his time outside of class. Indeed, when we put our first syllabus together for 410, I was proud of listing two office hours per week until I saw Warren’s office hours listed as “any time”! (I stuck to my two hours on his advice.)

Greg Guild developed Biology 121 as an up-to-date introduction to molecular biology. The subject is replete with technical information and a tongue-twisting vocabulary that can be quite challenging and even off-putting. Greg’s approach in 121 was relaxed and easygoing: he kept the class engaged with humorous references to current events and he conveyed his own great enthusiasm for the latest scientific breakthroughs. His lectures were beautifully organized and, in contrast to Warren’s, took every advantage of technology such as PowerPoint slides, videos, simulations, and websites to present the information-rich course content efficiently to a large class. Greg got to know students personally through discussion sessions, lunches, and office hours. Finally, he stayed organized—absolutely necessary in a large class to avoid confusion and ill-will—getting administrative things done well in advance and continually reminding the class of key dates and deadlines.

In retrospect, the teaching virtues that Warren and Greg displayed, and the appropriateness of their distinct approaches to these contrasting courses, seem obvious. They weren’t obvious to me at the time, though, perhaps because I was so busy simply thinking about the content of my first-time lectures. It was only by observing Warren and Greg in action in the classroom that the importance of these things became apparent. To me, this disjunction illustrates one of the great values of directly observing teaching. Someone may tell you that appropriate lecture pace, rapport with the class, good organization, and so on are key aspects of successful teaching, or you may read it in a book, but the truth really hits home when you watch a good teacher at work.

There is also value in being observed oneself as a teacher. The simple presence of a colleague in the room can sharpen self-criticism and make one try all the harder to do well, even if no formal evaluation of teaching performance is offered or expected. And young teachers, in turn, have something valuable to offer those who observe them: the enthusiasm and fresh outlook of new faculty are welcome sources of renewal for faculty who have taught the same thing for some time.

In the end, teaching is personal, even in a classroom of hundreds. I urge all of us—both new and not-so-new to teaching—to spend some personal time in another teacher’s classroom in the coming semesters. We can learn a lot from each other.


Dr. Paul Sniegowski, associate professor of biology, is the
2005 recipient of SAS’s Ira H. Abrams Memorial Award for Distinguished Teaching.

Faculty interested in observing their colleagues teach this semester are invited to participate in the
Center for Teaching and Learning’s Faculty-to-Faculty Observation program.
The opening lunch will take place Tuesday, February 12, noon-1:30 p.m.
To sign up e-mail: ctl-help@sas.upenn.edu,
or for more information, see: www.sas.upenn.edu/ctl/services/observ-prog.html.


This essay continues the series that began in the fall of 1994 as the joint creation of the
College of Arts and Sciences and the Lindback Society for Distinguished Teaching.
See www.upenn.edu/almanac/teach/teachall.html for the previous essays.


Almanac - February 5, 2008, Volume 54, No. 20