Saturday, November 21, 2009

Reflections on seminary teaching

As part of a class (and so that I could gather information for my decision about a career - see my previous post) I taught a seminary class for two weeks. In summary, I loved the first week, but I thought that I could have been more exciting. And during the weekend between the two weeks, I decided that I would teach computer science as a career (as opposed to seminary).

On Tuesday of the second week, I taught about Mosiah, chapters 3-6 (in the Book of Mormon). I wanted to be more exciting than I had been, but those chapters are very sacred because they testify directly of Jesus Christ. It's easy to have fun with historical chapters of scripture, but those chapters are a king and prophet's final words to his people. The class was attentive, but I could tell that it wasn't terribly exciting to them.

Then, on Thursday, the students filled out feedback forms about my teaching. Afterward, I taught Mosiah 7-10. These chapters were mostly historical and we had some fun with them. The class broke up into four groups and each group took one of the stories found in those chapters. Two of the groups told the class their story by skit and the other two drew diagrams on the board and explained. I think they had fun, and then we wrapped up.

When I got home after teaching, I took a moment to read my feedback. I was surprised (and so were my friends) to see that my comments consistently told me to be more interesting or enthusiastic. One student told me to have a personality!

It took me a little while to assure myself that I did actually have a personality. Since then, I've done a lot of thinking.

I thought about the necessary balance between information and entertainment. If I focus on teaching and spend no time trying to make my presentation interesting, I can communicate more information. On the other hand, efforts to make my presentation entertaining help students to pay attention (and learn as a result).

I also thought about how people teach and learn at BYU, as far as I have been able to observe. The general rule is that it is the students' responsibility to learn and the teachers' to teach. If the students don't pay attention, that's their problem.

Anyone who knows me knows that I'm curious. I don't just try to learn. I fight to learn. That said, I have a lot of trouble staying awake in lots of my classes. Part of this is the fact that I don't make myself sleep enough at nighttime. But part of it is because many of my teachers focus at conveying information. They're good at it, but there isn't much flair in their presentation. Even though I really want to learn, I have trouble paying attention when classes are boring.

And if I, who am extraordinarily curious, cannot learn as well from boring (but informative) classes as I can from entertaining classes, then I definitely must learn to teach in an entertaining manner. After all, the point of teaching is students' learning.

Since it will take me a few years to receive a PhD, I won't be teaching for a little while. I'd still recommend that you brace yourself now, though. This is a lesson that I intend to apply.

Friday, November 20, 2009

How I finally decided on a career

As I've mentioned before, I've been trying to decide for some months between two different career options: teaching seminary and teaching computer science. I needed to answer two questions: which of the two I wanted to do and which, if either, God would have me do. I came to know early on that it was my decision to make. So I gathered information and thought deeply and often about the advantages of either choice.

As part of this decision-making process, I taught a seminary class for the last two weeks. I couldn't believe how great my students were. They were attentive, helped each other, and really wanted to learn about the gospel. I had fun getting to know them and trying to be the best teacher I could be for their specific needs.

Halfway through my two weeks, we discussed the first two chapters of the Book of Mosiah (in the Book of Mormon). I thought I'd been a little too dry, so I tried to make the lesson a bit more entertaining than my previous two. My efforts were moderately successful, and I thought the lesson went extremely well.

As I left the building, I thought about how much I loved teaching these students. It's challenging and fun. I realized that the single thing I love most about teaching seminary is the feeling I get when I teach the gospel. The Holy Spirit testifies of truth, and it testifies most strongly when we learn something new or when we teach others (see,22#21). As I thought about it, I realized that I recognized the feeling from the countless times I've taught others about the truths I know and hold dear, formally and informally. It was the same feeling I enjoyed in those particularly good lessons on the mission, in the devotionals I taught to my participants at EFY, and in conversations with friends. I realized that because I have no plans to stop living and talking about the gospel, I have no reason to suppose that I'll stop having opportunities to teach the gospel.

This realization meant that the largest motivation I had to teach seminary over any other career was largely irrelevant. I hadn't yet decided, but I immediately recognized that this would be an important consideration in my decision.

Towards the end of the week, I talked with a professor and friend of mine. I don't remember what we were discussing, but I remember that we touched on some research I'd heard about last year that was a collaboration between electrical engineers and classicists. I remember thinking that perhaps my niche could be to encourage such collaboration between departments and colleges. I thought that I would only be able to fill this particular niche if I decided to pursue a career in computer science. As with my previously mentioned consideration, I filed the fact away for further consideration without making a decision in the moment.

The next day, I went to the temple. I had a moment to sit and think and pray. I took advantage of the opportunity to discuss what I'd learned with God and to ask Him to help me to gather the information I would need in order to make a reasonable decision. I had expected a long, drawn-out process over the course of the next several months. So I was floored when I had the distinct impression that God told me that He'd already given me all the information I needed. I thought for a moment, made a decision, and told Him about it. He accepted and approved of my decision.

I am now preparing for a career as a professor of computer science.