PKAL Faculty for the 21st Century

Timothy Lewis

What works: Observations from the field

Tim Lewis

Timothy Lewis is Professor and Chair of Biology at Wittenberg University.

Faculty for the 21st Century members reflect on their experience in making a difference for their students and for the communities of which they are a part.

If a visitor were to come into your classroom/lab—the environment in which you work with students—what impression would s/he leave with?

I would hope they would see a community of learners all working with the material to gain a better understanding of it. I think of myself like Old Toby, the Shoshone Indian guide who brought Lewis and Clark through the treacherous, confusing parts of the Rocky Mountains. He got them lost a few times, but together with his knowledge of the area, they got through. My classes and labs are like that. I know the area, but I don't know every single part of every place. I bring an expertise, but not all the answers. My students work with real-world ambiguity. In the end they learn a great deal about testing the ideas in class through experimentation, but I don't teach the same class the same way each year because the students choose some of the route.

What brought you to an interest in advancing the frontiers of education and to connecting your research to that work?

I had no interest in advancing the frontiers of education. I wanted to absorb and learn ideas and methods so that I could teach better. And I needed to do research in order to satisfy my curiosity. And there was limited time in each day, so I thought if I could incorporate my research, incorporate investigating questions, into my classes, I could kill two birds with one stone. And it worked. Then I learned that I had stumbled onto a pedagogy well-known and well-documented as a great way for teaching science. Our facilities did not promote that, so I pushed hard for new facilities, which meant I had to learn what others did so that we could build a better building. In the process, I learned a fair amount about a few ideas on teaching, but any movement of the frontier was incidental.

Were there crises in doing this? What made you persevere?

The only real crises were those related to budgets. My colleagues and administration have been as supportive as one could hope, themselves generally innovative in their approach. Money is always tight, but that is a chronic situation, not a crisis by definition. I never thought of it as persevering, and in my case I don't think it accurate. Maybe repeated adaptations.

What connections have been of most value in doing this?

Senior mentors, both faculty and administrators on campus and at other schools have helped me with perspective and offered ideas, and have been the most useful in my career. Reality checks are necessary, and many hurdles we face now have been jumped time and again in the past. But for me, the only connections that really matter are those with the students. I can't teach if I don't connect. I can't know what works for my students in my place if I don't connect. The friendships I have made with a few former students are as important as any in my life. That network provides me with the energy to keep teaching. Just to avoid some confusion, let me add that the friendships tend to develop with the students with whom I do research on a long-term basis. I don't think being chummy with my class in and of itself makes for good teaching.

What kind of institutional culture needs to be in place to nurture careers of faculty actively seeking to integrate their research and teaching?

A culture that embraces change and experimentation, one that thinks of students as something more than empty vessels to be filled, facilitates the integration. But there are ways to integrate research into teaching under even the strictest and most anti-research regimens. I have a friend who is a high school teacher where everything must be done to state-mandated standards for the proficiency tests. He manages to incorporate cutting edge research with his students against the culture and wishes of his school. In that vein, I expect it can happen one teacher at a time anywhere, but it flourishes best where it is the norm.