Reading Courses

By Sean Carroll | January 14, 2010 10:25 am

In the past I’ve often been listed as the nominal professor for various graduate students taking “reading courses,” which basically meant “I’m going to be doing my research, but there’s some university requirement that says I must be registered for a certain number of courses each term, so please sign my sheet.” But this term I have two students doing honest-to-goodness reading courses — trying to learn some specific material that isn’t being offered in any structured course offered at the moment.

And — it’s great! Anyone have their favorite suggestions/anti-suggestions for reading courses? The method I chose was the following: the student and I consult on a course of readings for the term. Every week, the student reads through the relevant material. Then once a week we meet, and I sit in my chair and take notes as the student gives an informal lecture, as if they were the professor and I was the student.

Obviously good for me, since I get to brush up on some things that I knew really well some time ago but haven’t thought about recently. And the students get to dig into something they really care about. But the somewhat-unanticipated bonus is that the students get fantastic practice in teaching and giving talks. Since it’s just one-on-one, we can stop at any moment for me to point something out or for them to ask a question. And I can expound upon my theories of chalkboard etiquette, such as the need to speak out loud every single symbol you write on the board. Over the course of a single hour, I can see the student’s presentation skills improve noticeably (from “good” to “even better”).

The world being what it is, it’s not possible for every course to be taught with just one student and one professor. But despite all the very real advances in technology and pedagogical theory, I still believe that the best teaching happens with two people sitting at opposite ends of a log (or equivalent), passing words and ideas back and forth. Everything else is just trying to recreate that magic.


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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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