Speaking of science
One of the other issues we've been addressing in the seminar is how scientists relate to non-scientists. This is, for obvious reasons, an essential teaching skill. Even if they hope to be scientists someday, students are not scientists. If you don't find a way to talk with them about science, then you're wasting their money and their time.
The idea that the educator is largely responsible for the success (or failure) of the student hasn't really seeped into higher education, although it's been the standard thinking in primary and secondary education for decades. Not all elementary school teachers are good at what they do, but it is generally agreed that if they are good, the results will be seen in the subsequent success of their students. In higher education, things don't really work this way.
The most often cited reason for poor instruction at the college level is that many professors consider teaching secondary to their research. While this is clearly true in many cases, teaching in higher education doesn't just suffer from playing second fiddle to research. Many, many professors (even whole departments) who take teaching seriously are nevertheless not very good at it.
There are two causes, both of which are systemic problems. First of all, people who teach at the college level are usually not trained as teachers. Many (most?) professors have no education training whatsoever. Yet, even if you have natural skills, teaching isn't something you can do effectively without at least a little theory and training.
The result is that most of the teaching in colleges is done by amateurs and autodidacts. In contrast, at the primary and secondary level, teaching has been a job for trained professionals since the turn of the last century.
The second problem, which is partly a symptom of the first, is regular old-fashioned chauvinism. It is the responsibility of the student to learn, but many professors fail to see how they fit into this. This might be acceptable at a private, endowment-supported institution, but such places are exceptions. The Harvards and Oxfords of the world are free to treat their students however they like, but public institutions are ultimately responsible to the taxpayers. The taxpayers support such institutions for two reasons; to conduct research, and to educate their kids. Sink-or-swim pedagogy is a dereliction of duty.
This is a problem that extends far beyond the classroom. I was listening to NPR on the drive down to Los Angeles, and caught a story on All Things Considered about the reception of Darwin's On the Origin of Species. Some extracts :
"That fraction of people who figured that they could and should keep more or less up to date with what was happening in geology, in botany, in zoology, even in physics and mathematics is a much bigger fraction than it is today," says Steven Shapin, a Franklin L. Ford Professor of the History of Science at Harvard University.
"We hear about scientific findings," says Shapin. "But the proportion that can evaluate them and follow along with them, as opposed to hearing about them, is very, very small."
Shapin says that since people can't be completely conversant with the relevant science, "They're looking for an answer to the question, 'Who can we rely on? Who's speaking the truth? Who can we trust?' "
I think the good professor is missing the point. The problem is not simply that science has gotten more complicated and technical. It is true that there is more of it, and that it moves faster. The reason I don't buy Dr. Shapin's argument is that this is not at all unique to science. Everything moves faster and is more technical now than in 1859, and people seem to cope just fine.
The problem is that scientists do not spend enough time talking with the general public. Only a small minority of scientists take the trouble to arrange their findings in a form digestible by the lay audience, as Darwin did. When they do, it is almost never cutting-edge research that fills the pages. Very few scientists go on television or the radio. The practice today is to bring research to lay the audience only when it is neatly tied up (or, the research community feels that it is, anyway). There are those who do otherwise, but there is a negative stigma to it; scientists who announce their findings with press releases instead of peer-reviewed papers are usually regarded with suspicion.
Darwin's target audience for Origin -- the typical educated Briton in 1859 -- would not have much of an advantage on the average American in 2009. A Victorian gentleman would probably have had better handwriting and more patience for trudging through elliptical turns of phrase than an American high school graduate, but I don't think they would have much of advantage when it came to comprehending an unfamiliar scientific topic. The advantage Darwin's audience had was that it had Darwin.
When a good teacher notices that a student is failing to learn something, they will look first at their own teaching methodology for the problem. The same goes for scientists; when the general public doesn't understand or care about a scientific topic, a good scientist should look first at how they are publicizing their work. If the public doesn't think your research is important, then either you aren't explaining it well enough, or maybe it actually isn't very interesting.