Monday, September 19, 2011

Teaching is in the air

A mathematics lecture, courtesy of Wikimedia user Tungsten. Teaching is an area I greatly enjoy and seek out the opportunity to contribute. This fall, I will get to do more of it than I ever have before!

One of the aspects of preparing for a life in academia in Canada vs the United States is the prominence accorded to teaching. In the US, you could probably get away with not teaching until after receiving an assistant professorship appointment as long as your research and grant acquisition were top notch. In Canada, you really need to have shown an ability to hold your own in front of a classroom.

Most Canadian applicants get this kind of experience as graduate students, but in the US this is less common. I had only one hour of total in-class instruction when I graduated from LPL in 2008 (not including office hours and leading review sessions and tutorials) and I was pretty middle of the road. As a result, I've had to try to get my experience as a postdoc - a daunting task.

I've been helped along this journey most significantly by Paul Delaney of York University. I've given guest lectures pretty regularly in his Planetary Science course over the last couple of years. That has allowed me to push my in-class instruction hours up to nine.

But this fall, I'm blowing everything wide open. I had hoped to snag a full course this fall either from York or Western. But when that fell through, I still managed to put together a healthy slate. In the span of two months from early September through early November, I will be teaching two guest lectures (University of Toronto; York) and two full modules (Western; York). All told, this should push my total in-class instruction clock up to 22.5 hours, more than half a course-worth.

It's actually been quite a bit of fun and lets me show off the diversity of planetary science. The first module was on Planetary Atmospheres, the second will be Planetary Surface Processes. The first guest lecture will be on Spacecraft and Exploration, the second will be on Titan. Of the four, I'm currently particularly fond of the very first module (Planetary Atmospheres) which I developed as part of the 2011 Western Planetary Science Short Course. This task included a problem set and a laboratory activity which were well received. My slides for that short course have now been shared by my students with others like themselves across the world, and a version of my lab on Optical Depth is currently awaiting its debut at the University of Toronto!

The take-home here is that if teaching is an area you would like to shore up or get more experience in, it is possible to do so as a postdoc. But you have to be persistent, you may have to look outside your own home institution, and being paid for your labour is unlikely. Still, it is rewarding work and I highly recommend it. If nothing else, you will gain valuable experience and knowledge about where you want to take your PhD.

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