I was drawn to the fields of Biological Anthropology and Anatomy following a introductory courses in these subject taught by professors whose enthusiasm for these fields was infectious. Scientific questions and clinical questions were framed as mysteries waiting to be unraveled. Studies have shown that deep learning is more readily achieved when students are motivated by course content, rather than achieving high grades (Bain, 2004). With this in mind, my goal as an educator is not to simply present information, but to facilitate learning by cultivating individual interests in the course content, while encouraging critical thinking by inducing students to interact with the material and with one another through a variety of learning modalities, including in-class labs and discussion sessions.
As with most educators, I find myself constantly self-evaluating my teaching skills, taking note of how classroom activities were received by students and identifying those topics that require more clarification and support. I have learned a great deal about teaching as a graduate assistant and as a postdoctoral fellow by observing the strengths and weaknesses in the course content, presentation of material, and level of student support provided by the professors I work alongside. By soliciting advice from colleagues and faculty mentors, I aim to become more consciously aware of areas for improvement in presentation style, student engagement, and classroom management.
As a postdoctoral fellow at Washington University and a graduate assistant at Duke University, I accumulated a great deal of experience with cadaver-based human anatomy teaching at both the undergraduate and medical school levels. My primary duties as at Washington University involve preparing and presenting lectures for the first year medical student course Human Anatomy and Development (course master: Dr. Glenn C. Conroy), assisting students in human dissection, preparing exams, and working alongside a team of knowledgeable instructors from anthropological and clinical backgrounds. Additionally, I have acted in a very similar role as a teaching assistant at Duke University for the Medical Gross Anatomy course. The approach to anatomical teaching at these two institutions differs; with Washington University placing greater emphasis on time spent in dissection lab (i.e. all exams are cadaver-based) and incorporating more clinical examples, clinician talks, and embryology lectures into the curriculum. Duke emphasizes a more evolutionary and functional approach to anatomy. I feel lucky to have been trained at both institutions, as the combination of approaches has given me a well-rounded appreciation for the anatomical sciences.
When teaching anatomy, I make a point to inject basic clinical and developmental information where relevant, and to notify the students of any observable cases of pathology in the dissections. This approach brings the academic aspects of anatomy into a more tangible focus for students seeking to understand how the human body works and why things may go awry. In lab, I emphasize the Socratic method, encouraging students to logically reason through problems and questions through a combination of logic, exploratory dissection and textbook/classroom knowledge. This builds skills the students need to succeed in the course and beyond. When viewing the dissection as a patient and the anatomical question as a puzzle, I find that students engage more deeply in the material—they ask more questions, examine the specimens more closely, and recount personal and clinical experiences.
As the primary instructor for the Introduction to Evolutionary Anthropology (EVANTH93, 2012 Duke Summer Session II), I frequently reference new finds and current debates that have entered their consciousness through popular media. I also provide extra credit assignments, in which students can practice a method of deduction learned in class, or compare and explore a topic of their choice more deeply without the pressure of being tested on the material. Student interest in the material can also be encouraged using flexible course assignments that allow students to pick their own topics of inquiry. I also provided handouts that reinforced those complex concepts covered in class that students seemed to struggle with mastering.
Furthermore, I aim to encourage the students to think more critically and deeply about the course material, by soliciting brief written responses to original research articles and discussing these in class. My goal with these activities is to assist their transition from consumers of knowledge to critical and productive thinkers. This is particularly important at a research institution, such as Duke University, where students have many opportunities to actively participate in research. Although many instructors prefer textbook reading to original research at the introductory level, I believe that it is important for the students to gain early exposure to field-specific research papers. While students may struggle at first to follow the material, early exposure followed by class discussion allows the students to begin to think as researchers. In my experience, class discussions and summary and response writings tend to gain enthusiasm when I probe the students to consider how they themselves would have conducted the work, or what further information they think is needed to come to a conclusive result.
I hope to challenge my students to think deeply about course material. Rather than encourage them simply to memorize “facts”, I would like students to gain an appreciation for the process by which these are derived. As a scientist, I understand that we are in a constant pursuit of knowledge. As a paleontologist and anthropologist, I understand that many of our questions about human and primate origins and relationships may never be fully answerable, but that our continued application of the scientific principles to these questions can move science forward. This concept is sometimes difficult for students and the general public to accept, since we instinctually prefer “right” and “wrong” answers. In my introductory class, I address this issue by having an open discussion about the various methods we use to make inferences about the relationships between and the lives of extinct primates. We discuss the benefits and limitations of the comparative method in order to determine which questions in the field are directly answerable, and which answers we can narrow in on using scientific inquiry.