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Talk About Teaching and Learning
March 18, 2008, Volume 54, No. 25

This is What Education is Supposed to Be About

Ruth Schwartz Cowan

In the fall of 2007, I co-taught an Ideas-in-Action course with Congressman Joseph Sestak (D-PA).   Planning and executing this course was a pedagogical challenge unlike any that I had confronted in my 40 years of teaching.

Since this was a 400-level course, our department required that each student do a research paper. Congressman Sestak, however, wanted a very different end product: a position paper, based on research, perhaps, but something short and concise, containing policy recommendations. Specifically, he wanted the class to analyze the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2007 (GINA) which had passed the House in the spring of 2007. GINA is intended to prohibit discrimination in health insurance and in employment on the basis of genetic information.  Because of his committee appointments, Congressman Sestak had attended some hearings on it, but he wanted more information and analysis than he (or his staff) was able to get from the interested parties who had testified; reconciliation might be necessary if and when GINA passed the Senate.   

My pedagogical challenges were created by the differences between the end products that each of us wanted from the students: a research paper and a position paper. I had taught undergraduate research seminars before, but never one which had to be heavily frontloaded so that students could do their individual research and write something collaborative—all before they dispersed to prepare for final examinations. In addition, I had never before taught a research course in which the individual projects had to be coordinated so that they fed meaningfully into the same end-product, which, in this case, had to be concise and clear and built on a class consensus. 

As Congressman Sestak began accustoming himself to the pressures of his job, he began to realize that he would only be able to meet with the class twice, at the start of the term and at the end.  He later confessed that having met with the class twice did not seem to warrant the designation “co-instructor,” but he was wrong about this, on two counts. A successful pedagogue manages to motivate students to do their best—and Congressman Sestak accomplished this during our first meeting with him, partly by telling the students why GINA mattered to him personally and partly by telling them that, as disinterested parties, their analysis of the legislation would be especially valuable to him. Laura Paliani, C ’08, a student in the course, put her reaction to his presentation this way: “The fact that we were working toward a practical and relevant goal—preparing a paper to help directly with the formulation of policy in Washington—definitely added a sense of urgency to my work. I felt I had a responsibility to be even more thorough and careful in my research than I might otherwise have been.”

Congressman Sestak also provided an important lesson to the students when we met with him after presenting our position paper. The students were quite proud of what they had accomplished, so they were quite crushed when, after a few general introductory plaudits he proceeded to tell them that he had found four problems, arising either from a lack of specificity, a hole in an argument or an overly biased account of one side of an issue. His request for yet another revision of the position paper (which had already gone through three) was, I believe, an important real-world lesson that, as an academic, I could not have delivered nearly as well: when you are writing for a commissioning audience, even the best of work ends up needing to be revised.  

The first pedagogical challenge—the need for frontloading—led me to try something experimental that I might not have otherwise attempted.  Before they could begin their research, the students were going to have to become acquainted with several subjects which are not normally part of a liberal arts education: medical genetics, for example, and health insurance practices and employment discrimination law.  As I was struggling to prepare lectures on these subjects, it occurred to me that the students might actually learn more if they located the information themselves; in addition, this information-gathering assignment might get them accustomed to collaborating early in the term. Consequently, I broke the class into four groups (one group each on basic genetics, medical genetics, health insurance and employment discrimination law); each group was asked to prepare a one-hour lecture (for class presentation), a written version of the lecture (for posting on our BlackBoard site) and a short answer examination (which the other students had to take, also using our BlackBoard site). I gave them some initial guidance (by suggesting good sources and by providing a list of the topics that needed to be covered) and an extensive post-lecture critique (by helping them rewrite their lecture for clarity and their proposed exam questions for pedagogical sophistication) but the learning legwork was entirely their own. 

I believe the students learned the material better than they would have if I had lectured, but it was hard going for them, as they were not accustomed to such an intense level of work at the beginning of the semester.  There was, however, an additional benefit that I had not anticipated; as the semester wore on the students began giving up some of the prejudices that they had initially expressed on some of these topics (e.g.  health insurance companies are evil; we are entirely determined by our genes).  Joanna Radin, a third year graduate student in history and sociology of science who had volunteered to act as an informal TA for the course, believes that this happened because the students “became de facto experts in the areas in which they presented, which meant that each of them had a personal investment in and commitment to that material and they continued to think about it as the semester progressed.”

Mentioning Joanna brings me to the second pedagogical challenge, managing the collaborative nature of the course so that each required end product was successfully produced. From week to week this was a seat-of-the pants endeavor, about which I don’t think any generalizations could be made (since both the personalities and the goals differed at each step of the way) except this one: extreme visual and verbal attentiveness was required, from more than one person. From the very beginning, when we were helping the students edit their lectures to the end, when we were revising the first drafts of the position paper, there were things that Joanna noticed (a dismissive gesture from one student, an overly jargonized text from another) that I missed—and vice versa. Managing student collaboration, I am now convinced, is best done with two sets of eyes and ears.

In the end, this novel and challenging enterprise seems to have worked. The students’ research fed into the position paper reasonably well (the two weakest papers generated three out of the four criticisms that Congressman Sestak made), the students reached a consensus about what they wanted to say (which incidentally, differed from what I would have said had I done this myself). At this very moment, several students are rewriting the position paper, even though the term is long over and their grades have been filed—and Congressman Sestak intends to pass the revised version along to the chairs of the committees on which he sits. (As soon as the Congressman has accepted the revisions, we will find a way to make the position paper web-available; contact me at rcowan@sas.upenn.edu if you are interested in reading it.)

I would love to teach this kind of course again, partly because it was intellectually exciting on several levels and partly because I believe in the need for a scientifically informed citizenry.  Another of our graduate students, Corinna Schlombs, hit the nail on the head, after overhearing Joanna and me discussing the course. “This,” she said, “is what education is supposed to be about!”


Dr. Ruth Schwartz Cowan is the Janice and Julian Bers Professor and
chair of the department of history and sociology of science.
She is one of the investigators whose research is being funded by
Penn’s new Center for the Integration of Genetic Healthcare Technologies (CIGHT).


This essay continues the series that began in the fall of 1994 as the joint creation of the
College of Arts and Sciences and the Lindback Society for Distinguished Teaching.
See www.upenn.edu/almanac/teach/teachall.html for the previous essays.


Almanac - March 18, 2008, Volume 54, No. 25