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Fellows - First Year Review

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Doug Gaffin, David Ross Boyd Professor of Biology

Dr. Gaffin

In my application for the Presidential Teaching Fellow program I noted that President Boren challenges students at New Sooner Convocation to “get outside your comfort zone.” I think the Fellow’s program does this – not just for the students, but for the faculty as well.

I definitely stepped outside my comfort zone this past year and developed three new and ambitious courses in Cultural Evolution, Sensory Manipulation, and Team-based Authentic Research. It was challenging and exhilarating all at once. I worked alongside some of OU’s brightest young minds as we wrestled with the primary literature, dug down to first principles, and generated and tested novel hypotheses.

I learned as much as my students. Students taught me about such things as Thomassons (cultural vestigial structures), Boxcar 3D (an online program where simulated cars evolve under various selective pressures), and Conway’s Game of Life (type “Conway’s Game of Life” in Google, don’t click anything, and watch it play on the right side of your screen). The Fellows program also allowed me to bring in special guests to interact with our students and give public presentations.

I think another value of the program is to tighten the weave among departments and the Honors College. In the Honors College I found welcoming and extremely talented faculty and staff who always place students first. I already knew and interacted with some of the college’s great programs– e.g., UROP, Undergraduate Research Day, Reading Groups – but I did not know the extent of the College’s commitment to nurturing the academic growth of our best students. I have already spread the word to my home Biology department and will continue to advocate for the Honors College and its mission in the future.

Let me conclude by highlighting the research-based course I taught in both the fall and spring semesters last year. The class is called Navigation in Bees, Ants, and Scorpions and it is a team-based, full immersion experience in science. Students were given several papers to read, instructed in experimental design, scientific writing and presentation, and split into small research teams of three to four students. After that it was up to them. They developed and defended research proposals, generated hypotheses, designed experiments, filled up their notebooks, gathered and analyzed their data, presented their results, and wrote up their findings in the form of a formal scientific manuscript.

Quite frankly, this was a scary venture for all of us –stepping into the unknown where precanned experiments and answers don’t exist. Of course things did not always go as expected, which is a big lesson itself. Science can be messy, frustrating, and unexpected. However, the incongruities are often the most exciting things – they are the chards that lead to new discoveries. And new discoveries happened in both semesters.

For example, in the fall, one of the teams ambitiously attempted to listen in on the neural activity of tiny structures on an organ on the belly of a scorpion. They used a technique called electrophysiology to insert microelectrodes into sensory structures that contain both chemo- and touch-sensitive neurons. My lab and others had assumed the two populations of cells were not synaptically coupled (that is, were not talking to each other). The students however, developed a new technique where they could monitor the chemo-sensitive cells while activating the touch-sensitive cells. What they found was a brief inhibition of the chemo-sensitive cells coincident with the touch-sensitive activity. I did not believe it (at first) and thought it was probably an artifact of their technique. However, the students were intransigent. They trusted their observations and produced additional examples. In the end, I think they are right and it could lead to a submitted manuscript. It will required several additional tests, but if they are correct, it opens a new path in thinking about processing of chemo-tactile information before it gets to the brain. The students are now, completely on their own, finding time to refine their results.

I think this is another big lesson and another value that emerged from the Presidential Teaching Fellow Program. Discoveries are not bound by class time or credit hours. It’s up to you, your perseverance, your willingness to learn, your attention to detail, and your commitment to doing it right. Students are trying new things, making mistakes, refining their approach, and trying to do it right. Likewise, thanks to this fellowship, I am doing the same.

Allen Hertzke, David Ross Boyd Professor of Political Science

Dr. Hertzke

Deeply grateful for the opportunity to serve as a Presidential Teaching Fellow in the Honors College, I am delighted to offer my first year reflections on this innovative program. I can testify to the value and impact of the program, both for students and instructors. The following are some of the lessons I am happy to share.

The program integrated my research and teaching in a deeper way than ever before.

When I assumed responsibility as a Presidential Teaching Fellow, I was simultaneously serving as part of a global team of scholars for Georgetown University’s Religious Freedom Project. Since my key responsibility for that research project was to synthesize the scholarship of a team of over a dozen scholars from around the world, I enlisted honors students as paid research assistants to help in that process. Over the past year I worked with five different honors students. Though each student handled different responsibilities – critically analyzing books and articles, summarizing themes of the literature, and replicating statistical tests –we met as a team and conducted brainstorming and outlining sessions that were enormously helpful to me. Together we developed binders of empirical research summaries that I continue to use in my work. I would not have been able to manage this responsibility without the work of this group of bright and enormously energetic honors students, who experienced from the inside what a collaborative research endeavor. They will be recognized in publications.

The program challenged me to develop new classes and teaching strategies.

The Honors format for Perspectives and Colloquium classes required that I recast or broaden political science courses I have taught before. So the courses Faith & Constitution and Real Democracy became more cross-cutting. But I also was able to teach an entirely new course called Spiritual Quests that integrated biography, theology, politics, and contemporary events. This was a tremendously rewarding experience I would never have encountered in my regular teaching.

I was also challenged to adopt more collaborative approaches to teaching, relying on students to take the lead in discussions and inviting them to help shape the sessions. Though I have developed a pretty broad tool-kit of teaching strategies, I found myself constantly experimenting with ways to exploit the enormous energy and creativity of students – simulations, role playing, assigning student discussion leaders. But sometimes I had to learn when to just let go. During one session of my Faith & Constitution class the discussion took a sudden tangent that sparked passionate and widespread debate, with practically everyone jumping in. When my attempt to redirect to the day’s topic failed, I gave up and exclaimed, “I am losing control of this class.” They laughed, and one student later relayed how much he enjoyed hearing this from me. The discussion in fact zeroed in on an emerging challenge in church-state law that I planned to introduce later in the semester.

The variety of perspectives from honors students also struck me. I have taught an occasional political science class in an honors section so I knew that honors teaching required a different, more discussion-intensive approach from my traditional classes. But most of the students in those classes were political science majors or minors, whereas the students in my honors classes this past year range across the colleges and majors. One of the surprises of the experience was how enriching (and challenging) this kind of teaching is. It is a joy to get to know such a wide array of students, and I am genuinely astounded by how impressive our honors students are, how open to experiences far beyond their major fields of study, and how refreshingly unjaded.

The program challenges us to foster an environment of intense learning experiences for our students.

Our honors students thirst for authentic intellectual engagement, and they respond with creativity and flair when challenged. I organized a moot court for my Faith & Constitution class, in which students tackled real cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. The result was stunning, as litigators jousted over constitutional principles and justices weighed precedents in arriving at their decisions. One standout was the female biomedical engineering major (a freshmen no less) who as chief justice authored a decision that, with the exception of its brevity, read like it was written by a sitting justice of the Supreme Court, lucidly building its argument on prior precedents and sound constitutional principles.

In my Honors Perspectives course, Spiritual Quests, we read the biographies of prominent leaders and activists whose religious lives intersected the great events and political movements of our age. Students were then challenged to connect their own spiritual and moral journeys to wider social forces and crucibles. This produced profound and penetrating discussions of the religious and political cross-currents of our age. But even more, students’ formal presentations of their own stories produced some of the most moving and thoughtful I have witnessed.

A unique feature of the Honors College is support for guest speakers, which enabled me to bring a distinguished Islamic-American leader, Zainab Al-Suwaij, for a day-long series of public lectures and meetings with students and faculty in Honors, Women’s and Gender Studies, and International Studies. But the highlight was her visit to our Spiritual Quests class. In an intensely intimate setting (a dozen of us sitting in a circle in the room) Al-Zuwaij shared her remarkable story growing up in Basra, Iraq, the granddaughter of the city’s leading Shia cleric, of fleeing for her life after participating in an armed uprising against the dictator in the 1990s, and the subsequent journey that led her to found the American Islamic Congress, devoted to promoting civil liberties, religious, freedom, and women’s rights in Islamic societies. I gained from the unexpected and perceptive questions students posed to our guest.

Finally, in my Honors Colloquium, Real Democracy, we strove to model what is lacking in our contemporary political system: frank but civil discourse. As we tackled the challenges facing American democracy, heated debates sometimes occurred along traditional ideological lines. But what also emerged is the complexity of viewpoints, and how much students thrived when they could share frankly, be critically challenged without being personally judged, and to hear and weigh other points of view. Refusing to be ideologically typecast, they surprised each other. Sometimes the class became so animated that clusters of students remained for long after the class ended, engaged in intense discussion that spilled out into the hallway. Entranced, I just melted into the background and watched.

The program facilitates the development of deeper connections with students.

As a Presidential Teaching Fellow I found myself drawn much more deeply into the life of students outside the classroom. While I have hosted informal office hours at the Cate Food Court before, the class support program (and the norms of the Honors College) enabled me to broaden that outreach to include lunches and dinners with students, a presentation to the Honors Students Association, and lots of other chance encounters with honors students, even those I have never had in class. As students came to appreciate this intentional dimension of my work, they became more assertive and creative. When a research commitment in Washington DC led me to miss one class period last fall, I invited students to suggest a way to make up the session. The quick consensus was breakfast at Syrup, a popular downtown spot. Everyone came and the informality helped forge a special élan among the students. These experiences confirmed how vital informal interactions are, how rewarding and just plain fun it is to be enmeshed in the lives of our talented and multifaceted students, but also how we as faculty can help students develop richer relationships with each other.

A natural outcome of personal engagement with students is being asked to supervise honors research projects, sponsor honors research day presentations, write letters of recommendation, and the like. It is so satisfying to see the fruit of our students’ creative efforts and achievement. Here, again, the Honors teaching fellowship broadened the range of my experience, as I have found myself writing letters of recommendation for medical school or serving as references for business ventures or fellowships far afield of political science.

In sum, the Honors Presidential Teaching Fellowship has been an extraordinary experience. Most of all, I have learned a lot from students – teachers to the professor.