"Just Teach Your Subject"

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Since Monday, I have been aware of a rather intriguing physics mini-unit that has been developed by Moses Rifkin that looks at racial disparities among physicists. It’s cool, and if I had a physics class to teach, I’d definitely do it (particularly in those post-AP class days when I find myself looking to stretch myself and my students a bit). Unsurprisingly, my thinking about this kind of unit is not shared by various “right-wing” bloggers and pundits, who have taken their turns over the past few days teeing-off on this example of what they think is “liberal overreach”. The various posts they have written are unimpressive to my way of thinking on the topic, and the comment sections are full of exactly what one expects in anonymous political comment sections (which is to say “horrific” and “repellant”). I spent only as much time as I could tolerate over on that side of things, but the one refrain I kept seeing was something like this: Teachers should just teach their subjects.

That’s a line of reasoning that seems to make a lot of intuitive sense. We should only teach the things we are expert enough in to have been qualified and hired to teach. I’m cool with that. And because I’m so cool with that, I will now delineate those areas for each of the “four core” sciences that most districts around here deal with:

  • Earth Science: Teachers should be limited to things that occur on Earth, within the Solar System, and inside of this particular Universe.
  • Biology: Teachers should be limited to things involving organisms, and the components of organisms.
  • Chemistry: Teachers should be limited to things that are either made of atoms and subatomic particles, or that interact with such things.
  • Physics: Teachers should be limited to phenomena that involve the functioning of the fundamental particles of the Universe.

This established, I am all for Mr. Rifkin’s mini-unit, as it is both manifested in, and deals with things that conform to my strict criteria. I might take issue with him were he to propose a series of lessons that dealt with magical entropy elves, or the quest for the fyzlywuz (which is, of course, the Higgs-Boson analogue in the Universe one over from our own) but until that time, I hope he’ll keep doing what he thinks is best for his physics students.

Of course, you might feel differently. You might think that my categorizations are ludicrously broad. Which is probably true, though I’ll suggest that it’s no more ludicrous than suggesting that there’s an “appropriate” definition of what we should be teaching in our classes to begin with.