What I learned from teaching

As Jim Anchower would say, "Hola amigos.  It's been a long time since I rapped at ya..."  I knew one of the risks in publishing a blog online was the high likelihood that I would go prolonged periods without updating it.  Sure enough, it's been almost six months since my last post.  I think I have a fairly decent excuse though -- a new endeavor that took up a substantial amount of my free time...

This past summer, I was presented with an exciting opportunity.  Ohio State's computer science department reached out to me (based on some prior contact between the department and IBM), asking if I would be interested in teaching a class on data mining.  Since my research background was more-or-less in machine learning (which is one of the primary tools that data scientists leverage), I figured the material was well within my wheelhouse.  Additionally, while in grad school, many of my fellow students were forced to teach entry-level courses.  Most of them disliked it, viewing it as a distraction from their primary role of performing (and publishing) research.  I was fortunate enough to have been funded through a research-specific stipend, so I could give my undivided attention to research.  Still, I found myself a little curious about what it would've been like to be "forced" to teach.  Frankly, it sounded kind of fun to me.

So, with those thoughts in mind, I decided to take the plunge, and agreed to teaching a semester-long class on data mining that would meet twice a week in the evenings.  The course was intended for advanced undergraduates and beginner grad students, so I was fortunate to be working with a highly-motivated group of (predominantly) engineering students.  This wasn't going to be a course aimed at 200 freshmen, most of whom didn't want to be there.  Instead, it was roughly 30 students who were far along in their studies, and who were taking this class because they wanted to.  In addition to having a great group of students to work with, I was lucky to have a very capable grader who was assigned by the CSE department, and also had the benefit of interacting with several other instructors who had taught or were teaching the course, and who were very happy to share their course materials with me.

I mention all of this to say that, even with these tremendous advantages -- many of which would be unavailable to teachers who do this work for a living, instead of on the side, like me -- I still found teaching a course for the first time to be an incredibly demanding undertaking.  I already had a lot of respect for teachers of all levels, but getting a glimpse into a small fraction of what they do day in and day out probably enhanced that respect by several orders of magnitude.  Developing a syllabus, lesson plans, lecture slides, assignments, and exams took countless hours, and I had the benefit of being able to see the materials other instructors had used in their sections!

Aside from the workload (which necessitated cutting back on other pursuits, like posting to this site), I found the entire experience to be incredibly rewarding for several reasons.  One is that I found I really enjoy the act of lecturing; the experience of standing up in front of a roomful of people and introducing them to new concepts was pretty exhilarating.  You need to be able to think on your feet, answer questions, be prepared to re-think how you explain something if it's clear that your original approach wasn't getting the job done, and, hopefully, impart some enthusiasm and enjoyment into the process.

Aside from enjoying the actual act of lecturing (which was really the smallest time commitment of the whole process), I found that I learned quite a few things about data mining along the way.  The old adage that "the best way to learn is to teach" turned out to be quite true in my case; nothing motivates you to make sure you really have a solid grasp of something like realizing that you're about to get grilled on it by 30+ smart people shortly.  In addition to getting familiarized with some facets of data mining I'd never been exposed to before (in truth, I had never taken formal class on the subject -- I was a grad student in electrical engineering), I also brushed up on some topics that had become a little bit rusty, and am all the better for it.  The exposure to new ideas has served to broaden my worldview on the scope of the science, and has made me a better engineer in my day job.  Additionally, one surprising thing that emerged from the university's post-course survey of students was that several students commented on the fact that when I didn't know something, I said so.  I guess in my head I viewed those moments as little mini-failures in my teaching, but upon reflection, I think it served to make me more relatable and intellectually honest, which the students seemed to respond to.

Finally, I really enjoyed the opportunity to interact with students.  I liked serving as a resource for them, someone who could answer their questions (or give pointers if I wasn't certain myself), get them interested in the material, and help them grow as engineers.  I realize it's a bit clichéd, but those one-on-one interactions were actually pretty gratifying.  Some of the best interactions I had centered around a final project that I asked the students to undertake.  It was fascinating to see what different directions people took for their projects, as I deliberately gave them wide latitude in picking a project that was of interest to them.  In consequence, I got a unique look at what their interests were (personally or professionally) -- something that definitely wouldn't have happened had I just administered a final exam.  Indeed, I think choosing to give a final project instead of an exam (which had been the norm for this particular course amongst other instructors), led to some of the best teaching outcomes.  I could tell people worked harder and stretched their abilities when given the opportunity to work on something they found personally meaningful.

I guess to wrap this post up, I was really very pleased that I decided to give the whole teaching thing a go.  It turned out to be one of the most rewarding, and enjoyable experiences of 2016.  So much so that I'm teaching the course again for OSU's 2017 spring semester.  I'm looking forward to continuing to grow as an instructor!

Justin Ziniel

Colossal Curiosity, Columbus, Ohio, USA