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Case #2: Jeremy Geraci
As a graduate student, Jeremy Geraci had been an enthusiastic promoter of science literacy and environmental education. Until he accepted a college teaching position, he had never been confronted with such disturbing student evaluations.
Jeremy had been excited about teaching an introductory biology class for students who were not majoring in the field. He knew that many students graduated from high school without understanding basic biological principles, and that this would be their last opportunity to grasp these ideas before they went out into the working world.
The course had run smoothly, although, as Jeremy recalled, there had been some unusual questions from a few students during the section on evolution. One young man had approached Jeremy after class and asked him whether he thought that carbon dating was a reliable process. Jeremy had explained that the inaccuracies in C-14 dating were only moderately significant in comparison to the large time scales the dates encompassed. The student had seemed unconvinced, but left without explaining his position fully. There were many other students in line after class that day, and Jeremy hadn't thought much of the question at the time.
There had been several other student questions which, in retrospect, bothered Jeremy. A female student had seemed to have difficulty comprehending the principle of survival of the fittest. She'd asked Jeremy after class: "Don't you think that there might be something else at work with evolution? I mean, look how complicated we are." She had gestured to her hand, which was decorated with pink nail polish.
Jeremy had begun talking about the process of genetic variation, but the young woman had seemed unconvinced. "I guess as long as I get this right for the exam, I'll be o.k.," she had replied, turning back up the aisle to exit the room. Jeremy had wondered whether he said something wrong.
At the end of the semester, most of Jeremy's evaluations were complimentary. Students noted his enthusiasm and said they had learned a great deal. Several mentioned that they were now interested in science majors.
But halfway through the stack were three evaluations that disturbed Jeremy.
"Doesn't value differing points of view."
And last, the worst comment Jeremy had ever received:
"You'll burn in hell for this. Stop teaching evolution or else."
Before you read the sample analysis for this case, you may want to consider the following questions.
1. What issues does this case study raise?
2. What questions for group discussion come to mind as you read the case?
3. What could the instructor do in this situation? Generate several possible responses
4. What might be the consequences of these responses?
An Example Case Analysis
Some Issues Raised By the Case:
The issue of respect for alternative viewpoints is important in this case. To what degree should Jeremy Geraci respect non-scientific points of view, or at least acknowledge them? Should he stay within the realm of science entirely? The comments he received, while harsh, reflected students' genuine dissatisfaction with the way he handled the evolution issue. The instructor was unaware of the issue in his responses to student questions.
Possible Discussion Questions:
- What could the instructor have done to address these students' concerns?
- What is the students' responsibility in this situation? Could they have addressed their concerns directly with their professor, rather than leaving anonymous comments on his course evaluations?
- How would the situation be different if the professor was intentionally ignoring his students' dissatisfaction?
- Would student-centered teaching practices have been helpful in this situation?
- How can one separate faith-based beliefs from science without devaluing students' convictions?
A Possible Set of Responses and Their Consequences:
1. Response: Develop a response to handle this issue when it comes up again. For example, the instructor could acknowledge in class that there are opposing views and that he will discuss the scientific approach to the issue. He could explain to his students what the scientific method is and what it is not.
Consequences: The evaluations may become somewhat less harsh. Students may understand the difference between scientific and religious thinking. However, other students may resent that their professor is bringing up the issue at all.
2. Response: Discuss the issue at a faculty meeting.
Consequences: Jeremy Geraci may get support from other faculty in developing strategies to handle students with religious perspectives.
3. Response: Ignore the comments.
Consequences: The issue may come up again and may affect future student ratings. In addition, the students' learning may be affected by their adversarial attitudes.
4. Response: Stop teaching evolution.
Consequences: The entire class will be less informed. The curriculum of the institution and its reputation could suffer.
5. Response: Host a class discussion on evolution.
Consequences: A debate may ensue. Students may become more open about their beliefs. Holding an open discussion could teach the professor what his students are thinking when they enter the course.
6. Response: At the beginning of the next semester, ask students to write an essay on their beliefs about evolution.
Consequences: This will give the professor the information he needs to know about student attitudes, but in a less confrontational setting.
7. Response: Try to learn to "read" students better, so as to understand their concerns and address them on the spot.
Consequences: This will improve the professor's teaching style and help him respond effectively to future student questions.
Reaching All Students: A Resource Book for Teaching in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM)
Diversity Institute Literature Review
- Alters, B.J. & Nelson, C.E. (2002). Perspective: Teaching evolution in higher education. Evolution, 56(10), 1891-1901.
- Chuang, H.C. (2003). Teaching evolution: Attitudes & strategies of educators in Utah. American Biology Teacher, 65(9), 669-674.
- Scott, E.C. (1997). Antievolution and creationism in the United States. Annual Review of Anthropology. 26, 263-289.