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CommForge2 is the course website for LAIS423/523, Advanced Science Communication, at the Colorado School of Mines. From here, you can link to student sci-tech blogs, read about the course, and comment on current events and stories. Welcome!

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Those Who Can't Do, Teach

You've heard that saying before, right?  I don't know where it comes from, but it's typically used to disparage teachers and professors who stay locked in their ivory towers (or ivory labs) and are so disconnected from the world that they don't really understand what they are teaching about.  I think it's also a barb intended to undermine teacher authority in the classroom, along the lines of, why would I listen to you?  When's the last time you were in the real world? 

Fair enough.  I bet we've all had teachers like that--who are so passionately focused on minutia or, frankly, who are so bad at their job that we wonder how they can even get their shoes tied in the morning much less inspire young minds.  I'd like to believe they are few and far between, but in some cases:  those who can't do, teach.

But I think we could also ask how far this line of argumentation gets us.

Take this comment from a student (about me):  "Besides, she has never done lab research, she has no right to preach, teach, or grade this class."


First response (to myself):  Nope, I've never done lab research.  But I do have eight years of graduate school under my belt, more than fifteen years of teaching experience, I've published widely in the field, given over 30 presentations and talks in the US and around the world, to a wide variety of audiences, and...

Wait a minute.  I'm being defensive.  Though I am reminded of Olson's critique that those who most need science communication training are often those who most resist it.  And clearly this conversation is not really about facts, or credentials.  What the heck is going on here?

Second response (to myself):  But communication is really important.  We could cite that study done by Goldman Sachs (contextualized here) that shows that about 70% of project delays for oil companies comes from social barriers, which have miscommunication at their core.  Or point to publications and reports from the National Academy of Engineering, the National Academy of Sciences, ABET (which accredits engineering schools in the US), and a major survey done of engineering CEOs and professional engineers who argue that the one skill engineering graduates lack is communication.  Those guys rated "problem solving and communication" as the most important skill you'll need (math and engineering knowledge came in fifth).  We could look at book after book, textbook after textbook, speech after speech that argues that scientists and engineers need to know how to communicate because their work is increasingly important in the public sphere.

Shoot, I could even point to the email I got from a scientist colleague last week asking me to help him out because the very prestigious journal he just got published in is now doing video abstracts.  His will be the second one ever.  I would bet in a few years everyone will be doing them.   "How do I do that?" he asked.  "I don't know, but let's try!" I said.

But this is all just more data.  The deficit model in action.  I'm assuming that if this student knew what I know, he'd agree that communication is important.  But he might not.

And he's not alone in his belief about expertise and communication.  Last year, a faculty member on campus vociferously argued that I had no right to teach the course Nuclear Power and Public Policy because I'm not a nuclear engineer.

I'm tempted to argue:  well, then.  I suppose a World War II historian has to be a vet to write about that history?  Or maybe he should just be dead, so he can write about dead people?  Maybe we should get rid of all the technical professors on campus who have been out of industry for more than a few years?  

Absurd, right?  Is knowledge really so stuck in these tiny little boxes?  Is teaching just about how much knowledge you can accrue and then dump into a student's head?

But there I go, being defensive again.

Third response (to myself, and to you):  Sigh.  

If there's one thing I've learned over the years, it's that when a critique--however rudely put--really stings, it's probably because there's some truth to it.  I won't concede to the student's argument that I shouldn't be teaching this class because I haven't done lab work.  I think that's nonsense, and I would bet most thinking people would agree with me on that.

But here's the thing:  the practice of communication is still very much an art in a lot of respects.  There is a ton of research on communication, don't get me wrong.  But things are changing so rapidly that the "rules" of public communication in particular are shifting under our feet.

Meaning:  there are no hard and fast rules for what really works in every situation.  Sorry--there just aren't.  Meaning:  what really works in one situation might not work in another.  You can't plug and chug your way through a communication event.  Meaning:  we often know more about what doesn't work than what does.  Smart people are doing smart work in this area, but it's still pretty new.  Consider that it wasn't so long ago that

  • Every major American city had a newspaper (or two!), and people actually got their news from them
  • There were no 24-hour news channels
  • People corresponded through the mail
  • Blogs didn't exist
  • Smart phones and tablets didn't exist
  • If you wanted to watch a television program, you had to actually turn on your television.
I'm not that old, friends, and I remember the world that I have just described quite clearly.  The point is that things are changing rapidly, the rules of communication are in flux, and it's going to take effort and experimentation to figure this out.

Meaning:  from my perspective, we are all in this together.  I need scientists and engineers to teach me about their work so that I can communicate about it, and I hope they will want to learn about communication for the same reason.  We are building best practices and experience together (like my friend above who is courageous enough to try a video abstract for a major publication, for the first time).

I know this work can feel uncomfortable, or slow, or too subjective to be taught.  But hang in there.  Leave your cynicism aside for a moment and know that there are things we can teach each other, and learn from scholarship, and develop through practice.  It's a different kind of skill-building from what you learn in your other classes.  Still, I believe that it is possible to get better, and even to get really good, at communication.  

But only if you keep trying.

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