11 September 2014

In which I admit new depth to my dorkiness: knitting and teaching.

Greg Wilson did a great job during Software Carpentry instructor training this afternoon of using interesting examples and analogies to explain the psychology of learning. Long time readers of this blog might remember my use of analogies to explain research and teaching (sandwiches and DDR?). This is a habit I picked up from my first class on college science teaching, during my first year as a graduate student. My professor was the incomparable Sandi Abell, without whom I likely would not have achieved my career aspirations. Although she is no longer with us, I think often of her and the time I spent in her classes. One of our course requirements was to write a teaching philosophy using an analogy for teaching. I didn't do very well on the assignment. I tried to compare teaching to the scientific process or ecosystems or something similarly silly, given that the point of the assignment was to make our views on teaching more accessible to a layperson.

When I started applying for jobs a year ago, I pulled that teaching philosophy out of my file archives, blew off the metaphorical dust, and wrapped it in fluffy, wooly goodness. Indeed, I spent a good-sized paragraph describing how teaching and learning are like knitting. I know you're dying to hear how I made that work, so here you go:
Much of my leisure time is spent knitting. I'm not surprised anymore to meet other scientists and educators who play with sticks and string. In fact, knitting possesses many parallels to the process of teaching science in particular. Yarn represents content knowledge like vocabulary that forms the foundation of learning. Knitting needles are like questions offered to students to assist in connecting together loops of yarn to form fabric. A student's misconception is like dropping a stitch in knitting; the instructor must backtrack, correct the mistake, and then pick back up with the previous pattern or lesson. The knitted product represents the goal of learning: a cohesive object which unites together different aspects of knowledge and imparts functionality. In my opinion, science learning is a multidisciplinary, dynamic process that requires flexibility, and instructors who approach science teaching actively and inquisitively are most effective. In the same way, some of the most entertaining knitting projects include many different types of yarn, use interesting stitch patterns, and produce objects which are both functional and beautiful. Both teaching and knitting are skills which require time, effort and continual assessment to yield successful outcomes.
I probably could've written another five pages! Of course, that was just the introductory paragraph to my two-page statement, which was tied up nicely at the end with this hum-dinger of a line:
I hope to continue helping students “knit” scientific concepts together in an interesting, engaging manner.
See what I did there? I'm SO (or maybe just mildly) PUNNY. I'd totally take a class from me.

Gratuitous wool picture, spun and knit by me!
I was halfway through the application season, having submitted at least a dozen applications, before I started to wonder if that was really the best way to present myself as a serious, authoritative scholar. I chalked it up to job-season jitters, though, and persevered. Apart from the analogy method being Sandi-approved, I sincerely believe the analogy to be about as accurate as I could devise. And as I learn more about pedagogy through new faculty orientation and the SC instructor course, I'm finding that things which seem silly to me in the moment are actually an effective way of communicating about science.

I sally forth with my renewed commitment to knitting + teaching. I consider fiber arts and science to be sometimes contradictory but more often complimentary parts of my life. I'm comfortable with that, and I'm extremely grateful to have found a new group of colleagues who can appreciate it as well (I couldn't help it...I knit during my first faculty meeting last week).

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