By teaching, we learn: A retrospective on teaching about blogging

On the surface, teaching and learning have a pretty straightforward relationship: we learn something, and then we teach it, so that others can learn it (and maybe even teach it themselves). This does happen, but the learning-teaching relationship is far less linear than this might imply.

First, teachers and professors learn a topic well enough that they decide they can teach it. Sometimes they’re an expert in the topic, and other times they know the gist of a topic and (more importantly) where they can learn more.

Then they plan the course, during this phase, they often realize how much they don’t know. So they learn more. As they continue planning, they’ll put together lectures. This is another crucial part of the learning-teaching relationship, since teachers start distilling information from other sources into their own words to fit with their own course structure. Now they’re really learning.

Then comes the day of the lecture. The students might assume the professor knows all there is to know about the topic, and the professor hopefully feels prepared. During the lecture, hopefully students will ask questions. Some the professor will be able to answer — she’s already learned this stuff! But other questions might be more challenging. They might make apparent to the teacher what she doesn’t yet know. Hopefully she then tries to find the answer (if an answer exists). She learns again, and maybe communicates what she learned to the student who asked the question — so she teaches again.

This is a classroom example of how learning and teaching are inseparable — they often must happen simultaneously, since each supports the other.

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Teaching BlogSci

This quarter, I was fortunate to experience this tangle of teaching and learning for science blogging. I co-taught a seminar with Prof. Seana Coulson to introduce students to science blogging and guide them toward creating their own blog posts about Cognitive Science Research.

I’ve blogged for a few years and have paid some attention to other science blogs, implicitly gaining an understanding of the topics and strategies that make for the most engaging posts. But planning the class drove me to find and synthesize new science communication resources. Then I shared what I’ve learned with the class, and they asked great questions. Often these questions sparked the realization for me that I didn’t know the answer — and until they asked it, I didn’t know I didn’t know it.

Those moments can be unsettling (isn’t the instructor supposed to know the answer to topic-related questions?), or we can embrace them. For example, students wanted to know what makes for a good blog post title. For the final class, I asked around and looked up what other bloggers believe makes a good title, which we discussed as a class, but then we just experimented. We listed potential titles, shared them with the group, and got input on which were most compelling. We did some background research, and then we experimented.

Although I was one of the instructors, I didn’t know the answer to the post title question ahead of time. The seminar provided an opportunity for me to discover topics I didn’t know, and then work with the group to learn more. This is one example of many that show that I learned in order to teach the group, then learned while teaching the group, and in many cases, learned after formally teaching, once I realized how much was left to learn.

I’m grateful for the bright, curious students who fueled this process.

Seneca purportedly said Docendo discimus: By teaching, we learn. So my experience of learning while teaching is not novel. Instead, it’s an application of a timeless concept to a very modern one — blogging about science.

To learn more about our seminar and read the students’ polished products, check out our class blog: UCSDBlogSci.

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4 years later: Why write this blog?

My blog is 4 years old today!

My first post was called Why write this blog? I was a fourth year undergrad, less than a week from graduation. Now I’m a fourth year PhD student, and uh… more than a week from graduation. Are the reasons I began blogging the same as the reasons I continue to blog?

Why I started blogging 4 years ago

I love to write, but writing in an online forum, where anyone could be sitting at their computer reading my thoughts, has always made me feel too exposed and vulnerable. Time to get over that, especially since I hope to go into academia, where putting myself “out there” will be a key to success.

There’s a funny paradox: on the one hand I want people to read what I write, but on the other, it can be paralyzing to actually think about people reading it when I’m trying to get words out. I deal with this by imagining that only a few people will read. I imagine someone who’s my quintessential audience. Usually, that’s my mom (you’re reading, right, mom?!). She’s educated and curious, but she’s not a cognitive scientist. She’s my ideal reader. So I imagine my mom reading, and no one else, and I just go with it.

It’s still hard to express your thoughts when you think smart people are listening and might criticize them. It took me a long time to be able to do this in person — in group meetings and talks — and I have no idea if my blog helped me with that. Throughout grad school, my relationship with criticism has evolved. Criticism is almost always an opportunity for improving your work, and actually has very little to do with me as a person. When I think of it that way, criticism is something to seek out, not to avoid.

I want to keep learning, reading, and thinking about thinking, and I think the best way to do this is to collaborate as much as possible. I’ve loved having frequent opportunities during college for cog sci dialogues with so many people, and I don’t want to give those dialogues up.

Occasionally people engage with my posts in the comments or on social media, and it’s great to have those conversations. But realistically, this blog is a

It’s  not the ideal platform for dialogue that I had hoped, but that’s ok.

I want to be a better reader, writer, and thinker, and this link convinced me that a blog is probably a good way to achieve that goal. In it, Maria Konnikova writes:

“What am I doing but honing my ability to think, research, analyze, and write—the core skills required to complete a dissertation? And I’m doing so, I would argue, in a far more effective fashion than I would ever be able to do were I to keep to a more traditional academia-only route.”

Spot on.

Why I still blog today

When I started blogging, I couldn’t entirely anticipate what my blogging experience would actually be like. Four years later, I may have even more reasons to blog than I did when I started.

My blog is somewhat of a lab. I can try things out – like a vlog, an infographic, or that megaphone graphic above. Do they make my posts more engaging? I don’t know, but I’m testing them out. If they flop, no harm done. I experiment with different topics, and I can use metrics that show me numbers of page views and how those readers got to my site for a rough idea of what resonates with people and how they’re finding my blog.

My blog also acts as an archive. It documents events like conferences and workshops I’ve attended, getting married, and the 2016 Presidential election, all through the lens of language and thought. My past posts help me recommend a book to a friend or find a paper I know I liked but can’t remember why. And it gives me ample opportunities for laughing at my past self. Like did it occur to me that acknowledging my college graduation by writing a post about euthenics at Vassar was maybe a bit perverse??

And I blog because it’s fun. It’s challenging, and it’s creative, and I make the rules. Some of my motivations might be unique, but it turns out I’m not alone in blogging “for the love of words.” In a recent post on her blog, From the Lab Bench, Paige Jarreau compares science bloggers’ reasons for blogging to Orwell’s “four great motives for writing.”

I’m a long-range thinker, but I don’t think I would have predicted when I clicked the “PUBLISH” button for the first time that I’d be clicking it for many of the same reasons four years later.

Why write this blog?

One day in the middle of class, I decided that I would start a cog blog. I’m not sure exactly why I made that decision, but as I let the idea marinate for a while, I came up with a bunch of reasons why this was a necessary project.

  1. I love to write, but writing in an online forum, where anyone could be sitting at their computer reading my thoughts, has always made me feel too exposed and vulnerable. Time to get over that, especially since I hope to go into academia, where putting myself “out there” will be a key to success.
  2. I want to keep learning, reading, and thinking about thinking, and I think the best way to do this is to collaborate as much as possible. I’ve loved having frequent opportunities during college for cog sci dialogues with so many people, and I don’t want to give those dialogues up.
  3. I want to be a better reader, writer, and thinker, and this link convinced me that a blog is probably a good way to achieve that goal. In it, Maria Konnikova writes:

    “What am I doing but honing my ability to think, research, analyze, and write—the core skills required to complete a dissertation? And I’m doing so, I would argue, in a far more effective fashion than I would ever be able to do were I to keep to a more traditional academia-only route.”

Sounds like a good deal!