My first class

I have spent the better part of a decade (+/- a few years) focusing on research. I got out of bed, picked up a pipette and didn't put it down until I was ready to go back to sleep. Now that I have my own lab at The University, I also am going to spend part of my time teaching. Of course I have ample experience teaching students on a one-to-one basis. I have mentored quite a few undergraduates over the years. But when I was scheduled for my first 'real' lecture it suddenly hit me: I had not been forced to attendance in a college auditorium since I was an undergraduate myself.
So when preparing the lecture, I thought back to the things that I remembered from my own college professors. The quaint ones. The storytellers. The inspirational ones. That's what I would become. A source of inspiration that they would still remember fifty years from now...

I decided to sit in on a few lectures in the weeks prior to giving my own. Because how do you even talk to first year bachelor students? How do you know what they know and what they don't know? How do you talk differently to second year students? Or to third years? How do you maintain order? And, not unimportantly: How do you make them like you? Apparently constantly highlighting the stuff they're supposed to know for an exam is one way to score brownie points. But wait a second, I'm not here to score brownie points! I am here to inspire! To show them how wonderful biology is! How normal development and disease are closely intertwined! How cool it is to do science! How technology is developing at such an amazing pace! How great scientists of the past developed these incredible insights! I am...

... terrified. That's what I was when I walked into the room. I felt like I was a piece of bait, dropped into an ocean, waiting for the sharks to get me. Surely they could tell I had no clue what I was doing. I was hit by a serious case of imposter syndrome. This was definitely a fake-it-till-you-make-it moment.

Only 50% of the entire class showed up to begin with. Apparently, that's normal (I had counted attendance during one of my sit-ins). Out of those, about 25% appeared to pay some sort of attention. A couple of students were talking amongst themselves. They were over in a corner, I could ignore them and they didn't seem to bother anyone else and I was too damn scared to tell them to zip it or leave. Apparently they had mistaken the lecture hall for a Starbucks. These things happen. Same thing for the guy in the back row, who was wearing a headset while watching a movie on his laptop.
Just like that my whole Mary "I-will-be-firm-but-kind" Poppins courage sank somewhere to the bottom of the ocean. It was replaced by a slightly different mantra. The "Please-don't-throw-any-tomatoes-at-me" kind. No way would I tell these students to pay attention or leave! A quick risk assessment told me that if they would just choose to ignore my orders I would have no idea what to do next. If only I were six feet tall and male, I thought... Then I'd tell them...
Ah well, maybe in a next life.

In the end, no one threw tomatoes. And after the lecture a couple of students came up to me to ask for a bit more details on a part that they had found 'really interesting'. And that's when I realised that perhaps that's all I should ask for. If I can get to five students, that may be worth it. But is that really true? In this day and age, are there still teachers who can captivate a room full of 18 year olds? Should I start using clickers or soapbox or other gadgets that to my opinion only eat up time (and only provide room for technical glitches and the associated mockery) and don't really add anything?
I have decided that I will approach classroom teaching the same way I approach an experiment. Like a scientist. I will change a variable every time and see what happens. Next time, I will ask the group of students to stop talking. Maybe the time after, I will ask the student in the back row if we could plug in his laptop so we can all watch the movie. Or maybe I will think of something really brilliant, and they will all pay attention for two hours straight even though it is almost five o' clock in the afternoon and then they will spread the word and I will get 100% attendance from hence on.

I guess a girl can dream.

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