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Teaching with Enthusiasm

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Dr. Kristen Larson, the 2007 recipient of the Peter J. Elich Excellence in Teaching Award, agreed to speak with the Center for Instructional Innovation and Assessment in this interview about why she feels so passionate about teaching her subject with enthusiasm. When we initially asked her what strategy was most effective for her to motivate her students, she said,

"Enthusiasm, enthusiasm, enthusiasm. There simply is no substitute!  Sing, dance, try pratfalls... whatever it takes to make sure every eye is on you."

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Teaching with Enthusiasm

Interview with Kristen Larson, Ph.D.
Western Washington University

Question: How do you tap into your enthusiasm and learn to share it with your classes?

I think my enthusiasm was probably born into me. It’s not something that I ever chose and when I started teaching I didn’t really think it was that important. I thought it was most important to have a deep understanding of the material and so for my first class I prepared by reading a bunch of graduate textbooks on the topic, which turned out to be of no help whatsoever. And when those course evaluations came back, that’s what really struck me is that the students rated my enthusiasm very highly, and I hadn’t even thought I was very enthusiastic. I think it just comes out naturally in how I feel about the topic.

Since then I’ve decided that it’s a great way to keep people with me and that’s why I do it. That’s why I don’t try and keep my own enthusiasm down, because I know different teachers have different styles, and I think sometimes I’m a little over the top for some students; but it’s the only way I know to keep people on board with what I’m saying. And I do really love what I do, now that I’ve had a chance to advise students and see what happens to them in their lives I’m always sad when I see a student change his or her major because he or she wasn’t getting As in it. And I love physics, I love astronomy, I always have, and that’s what keeps me coming back every day and what keeps me going in the classroom. So, for me, it’s like air, it’s a part of my life.

Question: How does showing enthusiasm differ from entertaining students?

I think that enthusiasm is different than entertaining. What I’m passionate about is the material that I’m teaching. I’m not passionate about me, and I’m not passionate about the students, this sounds terrible, doesn’t it, but I think that if I really cared about how they were experiencing  moment to moment I would tell more jokes. I love telling jokes, I love making people laugh, and I do have to try not to overdo that. What I am most passionate about is actually the physics. And I want people to learn, but I want people to learn it because I love it, because I think that it’s fascinating and interesting, and wonderful; it’s intellectual food that I can’t live without. So I think for me the difference is that my number 1 priority that I’m trying to convey is my enthusiasm about the material. So I’ll put myself in a bad light. I’ll make the students uncomfortable. I’ll do whatever I have to do because it’s the material that actually comes first for me.

Question: What have been your challenges for teaching with enthusiasm?

You know, Astronomy 103 is a great example of what the challenges are.  It’s a great class because people don’t know what to expect. What they think it’s going to be coming in is not what it is, and it’s a great story to tell. The story of how we know what the insides of stars are like is a story I’ll never get tired of telling. It absolutely knocks my socks off every single time, and I love it. But it’s 150 people and the only way to learn science is to do science, and science involves measurement, it involves math. And there’s absolutely no way around it, and these are folks who don’t want to see math, they don’t want to talk about measurement, and it can be really hard. It’s a lot of grading, it’s a lot of bookkeeping, and when you have 150 students some fraction of them get sick or they have a personal tragedy or they don’t like me and they come and yell at me or we end up talking about what the grade’s going to be and redoing this and something doesn’t work and the website goes down, and all of the logistics can take some of the joy out of it.

What amazes me the most is that every time I walk into a classroom and I think, “I’m tired, and I can’t get up for this today.” I do. Every single time, and every fall when I’m shaking in my boots, and I’ve been teaching for 10 years now, I’m shaking in my boots walking into that classroom and I think, “I’m not going to remember how to do this.” It comes back to me the minute I walk in that classroom every single time. And I always walk in thinking “I probably don’t have enough to talk about today. I’ll let them go early.” I think in 10 years I’ve never let a class go early.  And that’s what makes it great for me, is the classroom, that environment, I love. And I will be sad if the day comes that we decide as an academic community that the classroom has no role in education, because to me there are magical things that happen in the classroom that don’t happen any place else. And some of my best ideas, some of the things that have worked the greatest were improv, in the moment. And I don’t know any other place like it.

Question: You’ve described your joy at teaching as the fact that you “still think it is great fun.” How do you keep it fun and interesting for yourself and your students year after year?

Well, definitely trying new things. I’m always trying new things, sometimes to keep my enthusiasm running, a lot of times by necessity. That’s not to say that it’s not a little rough around the edges sometimes. It is, and you know, experiments don’t always pan out. But I think it gives me the sense that I’m down in the trenches with the students, and when it doesn’t work I’m just as bummed as they are and I want them to learn, and when it works, when I ask a hard question and a flood of bright answers comes back I mean that’s fantastic for me because I’m right down there with them. When my teaching gets not fun, when I know it’s not effective is when I’m just doing something I’ve already done, when I’m not really engaged, so I keep myself engaged by trying new stuff.

 I got Cs in physics as an undergrad, like more than one. And at one point I had the lowest grade in the class. And I got As in a lot of other stuff, and no one would have blamed me for changing my major, and I didn’t because I love physics in a way that I never really loved anything else, and life is long, you’ve got to do something you like. I could teach people to do something else, I could teach them to make a pie or ride a bike or something and I think I’d probably be pretty good at that, but I couldn’t do it day in and day out, I couldn’t sit up late grading exams for that, because I’m just not passionate about it.

 

References and Resources

 

 About the Author

Kristen Larson, Ph.D.Dr. Kristen Larson, Ph.D. is an associate professor in the Physics/Astronomy Department at Western Washington University. Kristen always loved science and even as a young child was encouraged by her parents to follow her curiosity as far as it would lead her. After an eighth-grade science lesson on levers and inclined planes, she decided to be a physicist. She was a physics major and women's studies minor at UC San Diego, where her childhood interest in astronomy was rekindled. She did her graduate work at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in upstate New York and earned a PhD in physics. Her astronomy research took her to Australian and South African telescopes, and she still enjoys traveling the world. She has lived in Bellingham with her husband since 1998. She loves teaching at Western.

 

 

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