Brian Saam portrait
  • Adjunct Professor, Physics And Astronomy

Teaching Philosophy

Statement of Teaching Philosophy
Brian T. Saam
March 7, 2008

Any statement of philosophy is first and foremost about values. What I value about teaching is (1) the challenge to present material coherently, logically, and enthusiastically in a way that facilitates understanding by the student, (2) the connections made and maintained with students, and (3) the opportunity to communicate to students the importance of scientific research and its complementary relationship to formal teaching in the environment of a major research university. I hope, of course, that honoring these values benefits the student, but it unquestionably benefits me, as well. Choosing topics, preparing lectures and overseeing the path that a course takes all provide innumerable opportunities for me to learn more and to become a better physicist. Even in lower-level courses, where I have done most of my formal teaching and where the material is very familiar, I still discover subtle connections and patterns that I missed before and that improve my ability to convey the material. The connections forged with students (both undergraduate and graduate) are the life-blood of an academic career. They happen in a moment—when I make eye contact in lecture and see “the light go on,” as well as over the span of years, when I have written recommendations and/or journal articles, discussed and furthered career goals, and even developed lasting friendships. Finally, there is the constant interplay between teaching and research. On a practical level, it seems that I can usually work in optical pumping or magnetic resonance imaging in some aspect of whatever course I happen to be teaching (especially Modern Physics or Introductory E&M); I have also met some talented undergraduates in my courses who then did work for me in my laboratory. On a deeper and more general level, I have found that simply being around students and working creatively to help them understand physics is a way of exercising the mind that is beneficial to thinking through, talking about, or writing about problems in research.

For me teaching is and always has been hard work. Lecture preparation, exam writing, and organization are all critical pieces to a successful course. I do not see myself as particularly adept a jotting down a few ideas and “holding forth” in a lecture. My style is more one of thinking carefully, well beforehand, exactly how I want an argument to unfold and writing it down in great detail. I am actually somewhat envious of those who can lecture more off-the-cuff. I think this kind of preparation means that the students find me knowledgeable and very organized. It also means that the odd question or tangent might throw me off a bit. I think that I have been able to improve significantly over the years in this area, as well as in better anticipating questions and difficulties students will have.

Like most of my colleagues, I believe in setting a high standard in courses and expecting students to meet it. The best students thrive on being challenged, and many others discover that there is another level to be reached in their concentration and understanding, if they are pushed. I believe in the practice of physics as “brain training” as much as I believe that it is essential knowledge for students going on to careers in science and engineering. On the other hand, I am not interested in punishing or demoralizing students because physics happens to be a hard subject. I realize that students learn in different ways. I am not interested in forcing students to attend my lectures, and I make all of my notes available on my website. While exam performance is still the key determiner of the grades I give, particularly in large lecture courses, I have also experimented with group homework and the use of personal response systems (clickers) for quizzes and survey questions. (I believe I was the first faculty member in Physics to use clickers in the fall of 2007 in Physics 2220.) The quizzes and survey questions were designed to help me to see what students understood from the textbook and lectures, and (according to the evaluations) they were of some help to many students in recognizing and absorbing the concepts. Conceptual questions make up about 20% of my exams; they force students not to get too caught up in the pattern search and recognition that can characterize the solving of standard homework or exam problems. Finally, I pride myself on being maximally available to students when I am teaching a course, whether after lecture, in office hours, appointments outside of office hours, or by e-mail. I try to give students seeking help first priority for my time, apart from prescheduled meetings. I also attend all of my exams, unless I happen to be traveling.

I would like to mention what I have been doing most recently in the area of teaching, and what I hope to accomplish in the near future. Having taken on many administrative responsibilities in the Department in recent years (especially as Associate Chair and now as Associate Dean in the College of Science), I have found it advantageous to teach the introductory large-lecture courses 2210 or 2220 for the last 5 academic years, since teaching them counts as a double load and one has the other semester in the year free. These courses require much additional work and organization due to the number of students, back-to-back lectures three days per week, frequent midterm exams, and the need to manage several teaching assistants. Still, I enjoy them immensely, particularly the connection with students during a good lively lecture, the showmanship involved in pulling off a good instructive demonstration, and in just simply getting to know and interact with some of our best young engineering, pre-medical, and pre-professional science students. I believe that I have served the Department well in this capacity, particularly as there has been a need for instructors in these courses: we have hired many younger untenured faculty in recent years for whom large-lecture-course assignments tend to be premature. In the immediate future, I plan to be teaching the 3000-level optics course, but I would like to develop a graduate-level atomic physics course. I also have a couple of ideas for new courses at the 1000- or 2000-level. One idea is for a 1000-level non-majors course on the physics of sports and recreation, including baseball, skiing, sailing, and scuba diving. Another idea I have is for a course that would be an interdisciplinary effort with the History Department and would frame scientific developments throughout the ages in terms of how they enabled us to know things that we now look up in textbooks or on the Internet. For example, the mass of the sun is known to five significant digits (1.9891 × 1030 kg). When was this first determined? What combination of theoretical work and experiments had to be done before it could first be estimated, then known to such high precision? When was the circumference of the Earth first determined and how? What about the speed of light or the age of the universe? There are many such examples around which one could build an entire course, and also bring in material on the changing culture of doing science, the interplay between theory and experiment, the social context in which certain discoveries were pursued and made, and the impact such discoveries have on our view of the world (and, indeed, the universe) and of ourselves within it.

My goal with this writing was to communicate the esteem with which I hold the teaching side of my profession and the seriousness with which I pursue it. I will continue to work hard, listen to my students, and to do my best to convey, in both formal and informal settings at all levels of expertise and experience, the enthusiasm and pure joy I find in scientific inquiry.