How teaching an ‘open course’ can open doors
Posted On: 07-23-2019
Finishing a PhD is fulfilling, but also a tense time because of the uncertainties of the future. This young ecologist found her footing thanks to an opportunity to teach an ‘open course’ at a new university.
(caption) Anuradha Batabyal with some of the students from her course “Colours in Nature” at Azim Premji University
By Anuradha Batabyal
Having survived a PhD programme, I was expecting life to get easier, or at least not as hectic. I found myself shocked and in turmoil because I no longer had a tangible goal, nor a clear direction! Now that I had fulfilled my goal of a finished thesis, where would I go? I knew I wanted to continue in research and be Principal Investigator one day. To achieve this I would have to set a series of short-term goals, but I felt lost.
I was grateful to have had a great mentor in Maria Thaker, an ecologist at Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru. She was always supportive and pushed me to finish my PhD project on time. I studied the behaviour of a lizard species, Indian rock agama, which is found in and around the city of Bengaluru. The animal shows interesting behaviour, combining physiology and cognitive skills to adjust to changes in its (now) urban environment. I had a few publications by the end, but despite this, I was having trouble finding a postdoc. Most international labs require fellows’ scholarships to be already in place, but funding is hard to come by and takes time to acquire.
These difficulties prompted me to reflect on my motivation to become a researcher. One of them was teaching. I knew I had a soft spot for teaching, something that was reaffirmed during my time as a teaching assistant in parallel with my PhD work. So why not give full-time teaching a shot, I thought.
Being part of the Centre for Ecological Sciences (CES) at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), helped me create a strong network. I found out about a teaching opportunity from a senior, Hari Shridhar. Azim Premji University (APU) was looking for someone to teach a module in an open course for postgraduate students. The concept of “open courses” was attractive, as I knew I would be challenged to teach something new and interesting to a bunch of students with no background in the subject.
Taking up an open course was mandatory for post-graduation students at APU, however, they were free to choose from a bunch of disciplines: dance, culture, history, theatre, poetry and science. The courses were all led by guest faculty. I would need to design an exciting course all by myself. This was an opportunity for me to figure out if I am capable of pursuing teaching in the future. Would I be able to inspire someone to fall in love with the subject?
I got in touch with the committee for open courses, for the Jan-May semester (2019), and they asked me to send them a proposal with a detailed course outline. Intrigued by animal colouration since my PhD days, I decided it was the best topic for me to teach. The nuances of colour production, its’ use and perception were topics that I thought the postgrad students would be interested in learning.
The open committee members received my ideas with equal parts of excitement and doubt. They might have felt I was too young and inexperienced to handle a class full of students, some of whom might even be my age! They repeatedly told me that I would have to be strict to keep discipline in my class as students may easily be swayed by my appearance. With the warning issued, I got to the job.
I was confident that I could handle a class given my experience with undergraduates and PhD students at IISc. But I did not anticipate the difference between taking a couple of lectures in someone else’s course and handling an entire course by myself.
When I asked my class of 33 students why they took up my course, the usual reply was “Oh the course description was interesting and you said you would give easy assignments”.
Managing the class (33 students) was not always easy. I struggled to structure the classes and take each one along as I introduced them to new concepts. At times, I wasn’t sure if they were genuinely interested or bored. Open courses can be treated as a ‘hobby class’, but I wanted to go beyond superficial facts and make sure they take away something from the lectures. I hope that by the end of the course I succeeded in invoking inquisitiveness, and the urge to observe, question and understand nature.
(caption) For my course, I combined science and art and conducted a workshop for them where they had to depict any topic taught in the course through an art. Great ideas came from it, from comic strip to designing camouflaged animals using natural material.
Videos of animal behaviour in the wild – predators using camouflage, or males courting females using vibrant and elaborate displays – were included in the course material. I designed games to make the classes engaging. With time, I learnt to decipher the faces of the students and I was able to correctly determine if they were enjoying the classes. Even outside the classroom, the discussions went on. Students emailed each other interesting and relevant studies, and also shared photos of animals or plants around the neighbourhood as examples of the phenomenon being taught in class. Meanwhile, I grew more confident as a teacher.
I personally believe that classroom teaching is not enough to invoke the appreciation of a subject. It’s best if there is a way to interact through a hands-on experiment. At one point, I organised a field trip for them to Nandi Hills to observe animals changing colour in the wild. Their faces lit up when we spotted the Indian rock agama (lizard) male change its colour to display and court a female. Now I am sure that teaching techniques need to evolve and combine innovative methods so that students are just not learning for the sake of an exam or a degree.
As happy as I was with how my first course went, there are things I would do differently if given another chance. I would be more attentive and interactive with the students, providing more personal feedback. Conducting debate sessions or group discussions would be a good approach for them to develop analytical skills.
Overall, my experience in teaching this open course was a meaningful self-evaluation experience. Without any long-term commitment, it helped me realise my passion for teaching as a career option for the future. I am grateful for the freedom from the university and open course committee to design the course as I wished. The job also provided me with strong financial support right after my PhD, before I moved on to my next career stage. I feel if more universities start organising such short-term teaching courses by guest faculty, it would be a great opportunity for teachers and students alike.
Anuradha Batabyal is an ecologist. She is currently pursuing a post-doctoral project at Azim Premji University.