It’s that time of year again! The fall 2018 semester has ended, and I have another ENT 432 immersion to macerate and digest. As posted here before (see my 2016 summary and 2017 reckoning), I like to make notes-to-self at the end of the semester, while the experience is still fresh in my memory. Most of these issues are also at GitHub albeit with a bit less introspection. Here goes …
Let’s start with a few things I need to improve. This list seems to get shorter every year, which is good!
- Death by slideshow – It’s time to simplify the slideshows that accompany each lecture and get back to using the whiteboard. A couple times this semester I tried to shift into lecture and sketch mode, and I realized how much I rely on slides to (usually less effectively) convey the message for me. Even my handwriting has deteriorated over the years. Part of the problem has been the rooms assigned to my class in the past, which had but one whiteboard that was always covered, in part, by the screen. This year’s room, which was in the newly renovated Ag Engineering building, was a masterpiece, with 360º of whiteboard space. See the photo below. Action items: illustrate lectures with 4–8 slides max, and only then to provide inspiring images of natural history in action or of complex synapomorphies or diagnostic traits (no text!). Make these slides available at the course website.
- Draw the phylogeny – I always ask my students on the final exam to illustrate the phylogeny of insects and then to map various traits, key opportunities, patterns of diversity, etc. that are further discussed in an essay. I have always provided the phylogeny, which is a slightly modified version of Misof et al. (2014), as a PDF handout on day one and open every lecture with it. The students know they will need to reconstruct it as part of the final – and maybe during their qualifying exam – so we discuss it frequently. Their strategy is often to regurgitate the tree, using mnemonics and other tricks, rather than to think critically about patterns of evolution, including alternative relationships and the evidence for them. This year we tried to draw the phylogeny on the whiteboard using our memories, and it was fun! See photo below. Action item: Open each lecture with freehand illustration of tree, and be sure to add a time scale. Jettison the PDF.
- Provide iterative feedback – This course has a lot of moving parts, and I have tried various approaches to providing feedback to students on their collections, databases, field notebooks, etc. I want to make sure that their end products are substantial and contribute maximally to the greater research enterprise. I also don’t want students to get any nasty surprises when it comes to grading time. I tried requiring mid-semester collection checks in the past with mixed success, and this year we moved to a volunteer system – we’re hear to help when you need us! Action item: Require iterative checks (one each?) of collections, field notes and databases. Consider developing a simple rubric and grading these iterative checks.
- The collections were great! I feel a bit like Goldilocks, after trying collections that were too large (stressed students out, resulted in poor preps) and too small (this is an advanced class and a core course for entomology grad students!) I finally found a formula that was just right. The preps were, by and large, immaculate, and the diversity of each collection was rich enough to keep me interested.
- The discussions were great! I definitely want to replace a few of the papers, but the students seemed engaged and (often) inspired. (Note to admissions committee: keep admitting great students!)
- The natural history exercises were great! After last year’s experience we developed a scavenger hunt of sorts – short experiences with insect natural history that students would record in their field notes. I also shortened the immersive experience from three to two hours, which I have mixed feelings about. Altogether I feel like the Discover your inner Darwin exercise is about where I want it.
- I had a great TA! Adam perfectly complemented my skills and made up for my weaknesses. He was always there when students needed him and gave a great lecture on Coleoptera. Thanks, Adam!
As usual, Powdermill Nature Reserve was a great place for a field trip – excellent facilities and a variety of interesting habitats. I highly recommend this venue and would love to team up with another course for a combined experience! I am open to any ideas, including teaming with a botany, mycology, vertebrate or other course where students strive to interact with nature. We always make gourmet meals, in case you need another incentive to share the experience with us … Send me an email!